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Hebrew scriptures: The tattoo taboo in Judaism

Religion Zone
While some liberal Jews have taken a fresh look at the topic, across the range of Jewish thought and practice, tattoos are still overwhelmingly perceived as inconsistent with the teachings of Jewish tradition.

Body ink is a no-no, but it won’t bar you from Jewish life.

The Jewish world has a longstanding aversion to tattoos. Even among largely secular Jews, the taboo against body ink remains powerful — a disinclination attributed both to the tattooing of concentration camp inmates during the Holocaust and the myth that tattooed Jews can’t be buried in a Jewish cemetery. As tattooing has grown increasingly mainstream in recent years, some Jews have even embraced it as a way to honour ancestors tattooed by the Nazis.

While some liberal Jews have taken a fresh look at the topic, across the range of Jewish thought and practice, tattoos are still overwhelmingly perceived as inconsistent with the teachings of Jewish tradition.

Do tattoos violate Jewish law?

Most rabbis say yes. Their objection traces to Leviticus 19.28, which states: “You shall not make gashes in your flesh for the dead, or incise any marks on yourselves: I am the Lord.” The Hebrew phrase k’tovet ka’aka, here rendered as incision, is also sometimes translated as “tattoo.” According to the biblical commentator Rashi, the phrase refers to a kind of permanent, un-erasable writing engraved on the skin.

There is some debate about the source of this prohibition, but many commentators see it as rooted in a desire to distinguish Jews from idolators, some of whose practices involved the marking of skin as a sign of devotion to pagan deities. As a result, some have suggested that the Torah’s prohibition on tattoos is not absolute, but applies only to those markings associated with idol worship. However, Orthodox, Conservative and Reform authorities all agree that Leviticus and subsequent Jewish tradition reject the practice of tattooing outright.

Within the Reform movement, there are some signs of a more lenient approach. While officially the movement’s rabbinic leaders have rejected tattooing as “an act of hubris and manipulation that most surely runs counter to the letter and spirit of our tradition,” the rabbis admit that their verdict is “subjective and laced with ambiguity.” In 2014, Reform Judaism magazine ran a cover story on tattoos, in which several Jews described their motivations for getting Jewish-themed body art. Rabbi Marshal Klaven, a tattooed Reform rabbi in Texas who wrote his rabbinical thesis on tattoos, argues that tattoos that affirm one’s Jewishness and connection to Jewish tradition would not seem to be prohibited.

Can I be buried in a Jewish cemetery if I have a tattoo?

This is so common a misperception that it has seeped into the wider culture, referenced  by Larry David in an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm and prompting even the New York Times to consider the question. It is totally false. Though some individual Jewish burial societies may decline to bury tattooed Jews, the practice does not appear to be a common one and there is nothing in Jewish law that calls for denying a Jewish burial to an individual with a tattoo. Even the remains of Amy Winehouse, the heavily tattooed British Jewish singer who was cremated (another violation of Jewish law) after her death in 2011, were interred in a Jewish cemetery in London.

What about other Jewish rituals? Is having a tattoo grounds for exclusion?

No. Rabbi Alan Lucas, the author of the 1997 Conservative movement opinion on tattooing, asserts that those who violate the prohibition on tattooing should still be permitted to participate fully in synagogue life. As a rule, transgressing a particular commandment does not result in one’s exclusion from synagogue life. While some traditional communities might find it unseemly for a member with a visible tattoo to lead services or read from the Torah, there is nothing in Jewish law that requires someone be excluded. “It’s not different than a person who’s in violation of any prohibition in the Torah,” Rabbi Mark Dratch, executive vice-president of the Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America, tells MJL.

What about medical tattoos?

Medical tattoos are used to indicate the bearer’s medical condition or to identify a location on the body for a medical procedure. For cancer patients, tattoos are sometimes used to indicate the proper alignment of radiation equipment. When a life is at stake, nearly all Jewish laws can be violated, a concept called pikuach nefesh. In cases where there are alternatives, such as using markers, the permissibility of these types of medical tattoos is a matter of some dispute. However, if a tattoo is required for a life-saving procedure, it is permitted.

Tattoos are also sometimes used following reconstructive surgery. After a mastectomy, for instance, doctors occasionally use tattoos to enhance the natural appearance of breast reconstruction. The Reform movement specifically exempted these kinds of procedures from their ruling opposing tattoos. Among Orthodox authorities, the legal ramifications of such procedures remain a source of debate, though there is support for the idea that radical disfigurement that impedes normal social interaction constitutes a kind of intense psychic pain that might justify suspending the prohibition on tattoos.

Didn’t the ancient Hebrews engage in tattooing?

There are a number of biblical references to marking the body as a sign of connection to God. Nili Fox, a professor of Bible at the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College, has highlighted several biblical passages that mention body marking as signs of God’s covenant with the Jewish people, though she acknowledges these may be merely “literary devices.” Nevertheless, among defenders of tattooing, these references are taken as evidence that Jewish tradition is less hostile to tattoos than the verse in Leviticus alone would suggest. —My Jewish Learning