Tattoos: Reclaiming Ourselves

 “I was told that you could not get tattoos if you were Jewish, that you cannot be buried in a Jewish cemetery if you have them”.

I found myself slowly lowering the sleeves of my shirt to cover my own in what felt like an educational failure. There I was, standing in a room of students, discussing the holocaust and the tattoos on survivors arms, while displaying my own. There we were, explaining how these tattoos were used to dehumanize people and strip them from their name and identity, while I had multiple tattoos that I had willingly acquired myself. Oh, the irony and deep shame.

We gave the students the now blanket answer to their question: this law (while much more complex than stated) was written prior to the holocaust, so a lot has changed since then.

And it's true, each Jewish movement has developed its own stance for tattoos. To understand this first, though, we have to go back to Leviticus 19:28, which says “You shall not make gashes in your flesh for the dead, or incise any marks on yourselves: I am the LORD.” Rashi went on to interpret the word “incision” as any permanent mark in the body. Of course, as it is the true Jewish way to tackle a problem, the interpretations have poured in through the ages. We are clearly not great at agreeing on things.

For the reform movement, the CCAR responsa states that tattoos for the purpose of reconstructive surgery are permissible, and while it recognizes the importance of personal adornment, the body is holy and should therefore treated as such.

The conservative movement took the debate a step forward, where in the Mishnah they argued that the tattoo would only be prohibited if it included God’s name (they are using a literal interpretation of the verse in question). They eventually go on to state that all tattooing is reprehensible. However, they do specifically state that, as a clear response to tattoos inflicted during the holocaust, the person with the tattoo becomes blameless as it was not done willingly. Most importantly though, the conservative movement specifically states that tattoos and body piercings do not preclude someone from engaging in jewish rituals.

The orthodox responsa is pretty straight forward: tattoos are prohibited as they go against the halakha (Jewish law) as stated in Leviticus 19:28. Circumcision is an exemption as it marks the direct commitment of humanity to God. For clarification: in all instances, burial in a Jewish cemetery and participation in Jewish rituals is not prohibited on the basis of tattoos. In short: myth debunked.

So here I am, a practicing Jewish woman and educator, standing in front of my students feeling like the biggest imposter in the world. Welcome to my vulnerable space, come on in, we have cookies.

Original work by Gabriel Wolff (IG @hebrew_tattoos)

I went home and stared at my tattoos. Each tattoo represents a specific moment in my life. Whether it's in memory of someone, my children’s writing, and a hebrew psalm, and even Hillel’s words (you can hear more about that
here). I have often wondered whether to cover them whenever I am in Jewish spaces for fear of judgment. After all, my students are not the only ones asking these questions. Will parents think I am less equipped to properly teach Judaism to their children? Will Jewish employers disqualify me because my choice goes against Jewish law? It is 2024, where do we stand on all of this today?.

Eventually, after an embarrassingly long time debating the merits of my own choices, I came back into my senses, and remembered why I got these tattoos in the first place.

I believe in God. I believe that we are created in His image, and I believe in living a life guided by Jewish values. I believe that my body is holy and because of that, I strongly believe that I am the best person to make decisions on how to treat it. None of my tattoos are created as a form or idolatry or as a purposeful way to desecrate its holiness. It is actually quite the opposite: my tattoos have been the way that I have been able to reclaim my identity through the addition of meaningful art. I am reclaiming the narrative that tattoos destroy my body and turning them into self-expression of my commitment to being my most authentic self. The tattoos have allowed me to connect with my soul in a way that makes me more aware of who I am and deepens my prayer. I no longer pray because I have to, I do so because I am more in tune with my body and my soul.

For the record, I recognize that this is a deeply personal experience and I do not expect those who hold different opinions to agree with me. Quite the opposite, if this piece helped you commit further to your own stance on the subject, I am thrilled.

My choices on my body have no reflection on my ability to provide my students with a meaningful education, and I needed that reminder. As educators, our students don’t expect us to stand in front of them and pretend to be the perfect Jewish person. They expect realness, inspiration, and connection. We want to teach them to develop a love for Judaism that they identify with and can connect with on a deeper level, and that starts with being true to ourselves. 


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