Rabbinic Thesis submitted February 2009 (Copyright May 2009)
Over the past forty years tattooing, piercing and other forms of body modification have become more and more popular. These acts, once reserved for freaks and lowlifes, have become more mainstream and have infiltrated all levels of society. In the past five years news articles and sociological studies have started looking at tattooing in a new light, with less stigma and less judgment. Television documentary and primetime programming have done their part to help bring tattooing out of the shadows and into the public eye. Additionally, Judaism and the modern Jewish movements have recently begun responding to the phenomenon.
The topic is important in the Jewish context because until recently it has largely been ignored, brushed under the rug as a given, “don’t do that” commandment. But the reality is that many people are doing it; many Jews are getting tattooed, joining the ranks of tattooed Jews and modified people. And this work serves to validate those Jews taking the art seriously. Many Jewish publishing companies have released works that offer textual resources and purport to take no stands about the acceptance of such acts. However, in this piece, I hope to show that the mitzvah that prohibits tattooing is not as clear-cut as it has seemed or been taken. For many it is easy to read the text and accept it as absolute. But the reality is that in almost every case, text is never absolute. There are nuances and undertones; accepted subtleties and implications. In fact, until the 16th century most Jewish authorities accepted that the biblical prohibition stated in Leviticus 19:28 was specifically intended to prohibit pagan practices. Today, we would be hard pressed to define tattooing as merely a pagan practice. Especially in the face of the number of Jews using the art as a Jewish practice. Rather, tattooing is becoming just another art form with the body just another canvas.
Essentially, this work serves to trace the verse (Leviticus 19:28) through all the traditional texts and many modern commentaries. It follows the Jewish tradition of full engagement with the text. I felt that there was a lack of comprehensive writing on the subject from a Jewish perspective. There are many recent works that offer a discussion of tattoos and body modification. In most, if they mention Judaism and the Jewish relationship with tattooing at all, they do one of two things: either dismiss it outright by saying “according to Judaism, tattooing is prohibited,” or they offer interpretations of bible that imply that tattooing was a practice of ancient Israelites (a subject I touch on in this study) but don’t support their theories or delve much further into the idea. There have been no comprehensive studies done that deal specifically with the phenomenon of Jews getting Jewish tattoos, a phenomenon I first witnessed while working at a Jewish summer camp supervising a surprising number of college-age Jews with Jewish tattoos. I was struck by the number of such Jews and the stories they told about their decisions to get tattooed.
In this work, I begin with the biblical text itself, translating it and offering a selection of varied and prominent bible scholars’ perspectives on the passage. I also offer my own reading of the text as a modern voice. From there I return to the traditional halakhic sources to show what traditional Judaism has said about the text. This includes a discussion of the Mishna, Talmud, Maimonides, and the Shulkhan Arukh. The next section is a look at what modern Jewish authorities from the Reform and Conservative movements have to say about tattoos and how the issue is being handled in Jewish educational settings. Next I discuss tattoos and the tattoo renaissance in general including an interview with Fakir Musafar. And finally I move to a pointed discussion of Jews and tattoos today, where I offer the words of actual Jews sharing their thoughts on their own Jewish tattoos. Through this work I hope to shed new light on the topic, specifically by offering a definitive Reform perspective. As society changes and social norms change, so the Jewish relationship with tattooing and body modification is due for a revisit.