The Evolution Of Choice: Tattoo Or Not To?

This week, in our reading of Parashah Re’eh in the book of Devarim (Deuteronomy) we discover a complex chapter that addresses the Israelites’ approaching settlement of Canaan. It is filled with cultural admonishments and exhortations designed to preserve the relatively fledging concept of monotheism. Because so much of the text recaps stories and strong points of the first four books of the Torah, I chose to focus on the brief section (14:1-14:3) that seemed pointedly relevant to contemporary life; the section that addresses choice in individual holiness.

As an illustrator and graphic designer, it is necessary to establish a unique brand identity within an extremely competitive market. This logo, or mark that represents our professional achievements and aspirations, though it may take the form of a simple graphic or phrase requires much thought. It becomes the face you present to the world. 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.

A little story: Once, years ago at a neighborhood shop I purchased some stones and beads that I could fashion into a necklace. As I reached into my purse to pay for these items, one of my business cards inadvertently fell onto the counter. A young patron 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 offered a crooked smile and told her, “It’s nice that you like my work; thanks. Maybe you are not Jewish, but I’m afraid my religion doesn’t permit tattoos and I would not feel good about letting my work be used for them.” The young woman stared at me. “Oh,” she said with a frown. “Too bad, it’s a great design.” Something about her narrowed eyes told me she would have some version of it made anyway. Oh well.

Though tattoos are as old as the history of many cultures (full body coverage is a fine art in Japan called horimono), they’ve become ubiquitous in our urban landscape with less clothing worn in public being the norm. I began to pay special attention to the numerous young people sporting a variety of tattoos and body piercings when I left the shop. At that time, I hadn’t seen any tattooed Jews, but maybe they weren’t as bold about them as they are today given the caché of magen-david studded tabloid celebrities who profess to be ‘into’ kabbalah.

Anyway, I found some of the wide array of designs interesting, even technically brilliant from an artistic perspective, but deeply disturbing otherwise. Perhaps it was their aura of permanence (though removal is easier these days), but in retrospect I think that my fickle artistic sensibilities would soon grow weary of any design I chose despite my passion for it at the time. Not to mention how age and wrinkles would distort it.

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. There are some who scoff at the law barring Jews with tattoos from burial in a Jewish cemetery and by extension at that law requiring that only Jews of good conscience belong in such hallowed ground. No one is perfect, they say. Saints and liars may not be kosher fellow dirt-nappers but who’s going to argue after the funeral? I don’t know the technicalities, but that argument sounds pretty disingenuous to me while it attempts to sanction undesirable behavior.

The young Goth woman about to eat a scorpion kebab accompanies the quotation on the opposite page to demonstrate another important prohibition of this parashah; polluting our inner purity with forbidden foods. The grid below her displays a selection of animals that permitted (full color) and forbidden (mauve color). As world travelers  know, these foods (scorpion kebabs are a common street food in Beijing) are readily available and many find them appetizing. But again, eating such things raises the question of choice. Are she and the tattooed man with the skull Jews? Hard to tell, but for my purposes, they are, since they might easily reflect the growing trend among young Jews to adopt this form of body modification. Nevermind that we have always been a people apart; is it really necessary to blatantly remind the world of that fact? What Holocaust survivor still alive wouldn’t shudder at the sight of a young tattooed Jew? Even if said tattooed Jew loudly proclaims that he/she is proud of their Jewishness and wishes the rest of the world to know it?

That is why I’ve placed a Holocaust witness in the background; for perspective. He might be their ancestor observing their assimilation into our surrounding culture. Yet he seems to say that as much as we try to disguise our ‘Nitzotz Ha-Yehudi’ or even to silence it with sheer rebellion, such choices may again become our undoing.

At the end of the day, it seems to me that being ‘cool’ is knowing you don’t need to be.

The illustrations above may be found along with additional footnotes in my book, Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary (Pomegranate, 2009).The book is distributed internationally and may be purchased directly from the publisher by calling: 1-800-227-1428 (US), {+44} 0 1926 430111(UK) or visiting http://www.pomegranate.com/a166.html.

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