The Evolution Of Choice: To Tattoo Or Not To?

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This week, in Parashah Re’eh, much ground is covered in preparation for the Israelites’ settlement of Canaan. However, the section of Moses’ narrative that addresses choice in practicing individual holiness intrigued me as an illustrator and graphic designer, living in a time where tattoos and other forms of body modification are ubiquitous. Above is a detail from my response to this parashah. In deciding how to interpret it, I recalled my first exposure to these practices in 1964. While I was aware of tattoos being traditionally engraved on members of the military, biker clubs and individual pretenders to these identities, I was unprepared for the vision of a classmate sitting on a bench in the girls’ locker room after gym class. She was hunched over, giving the appearance of either being ill or writing in a notebook. Moving closer to inquire if she was ok, I was speechless with shock and horror as I realized she was carving her boyfriend’s name with a penknife in her thigh.

Maybe I’m prudish, but to this day, the image provokes a shudder. Of course this is extreme and I imagine a psychiatrist would have a field day uncovering her motives, but in a twisted way, it’s not all that different from the concept of establishing a brand identity in my business; a practice that is essential within an extremely competitive market. By creating a logo, or mark that represents our professional achievements and aspirations, we attempt to imprint our creative identity on the public consciousness, or subconscious, if you will. How does all this relate to tattoos and Parashah Re’eh? Hang on, I’m getting there.

Though I have experimented with several designs over the years, a sun and moon motif remains my favorite, since it speaks to the timelessness of creative spirit. One day, at a neighborhood shop I purchased some stones and beads that I could fashion into a necklace. As I paid for these items, one of my business cards with an early version of that logo inadvertently fell onto the counter. A young woman behind me caught a glimpse of it and immediately inquired if she might have one so that she could copy the design for a tattoo. For a moment I was flattered and somewhat amused, but my inner ‘Nitzotz Ha-Yehudi’ quietly nudged me. “This tattoo (K’tovet Ka’aka) would be so not kosher!” it seemed to say. I sort of smiled crookedly and told her, “Sorry, my religion doesn’t permit it, but thanks anyway.” Huh? Where did that come from? Though tattoos have become an art form in our urban landscape, I began to pay special attention to the numbers of people, young and old, sporting an array of tattoos and body piercings when I left the shop. I found these interesting from an artistic perspective (particularly when I looked at horimono, the ancient, masterful Japanese art of body decoration), but deeply disturbing otherwise. Perhaps it was their aura of permanence (though removal is easier these days), but I was prompted to check out the Torah to verify this prohibition. Though the Torah views tattooing, body piercing and shaving portions of the head as evidence of ancient cultic death rituals and a form of idolatry (Avodah Zarah), other subtle issues around it such as cosmetic tattooing are addressed in rabbinic discourse. Rabbi Chaim Jachter, faculty advisor at The Torah Academy of Bergen County, NJ suggests that our bodies do not belong to us, but are loaned to us that we may perform mitzvot; not to do whatever we wish with them. In this context it seems clear that our bodies must be returned to earth intact, as we received them. But of course, the choice was always ours…

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