Tattoo or taboo?
November 4, 2009
When did the media declare October “Jewish Body Modification Month”? I’ll take credit for getting the ball rolling with a column about circumcision (in sum: It’s barbaric, it’s healthy, it’s beautiful, and it’s ours). Next, New York magazine devoted a 12-page spread to the pros and cons of circumcision.
Tablet, the invaluable on-line magazine of Jewish arts and culture, published a series of articles celebrating what they in fact called “Jewish Body Week” (inspired by anthropologist Melvin Konner’s book The Jewish Body). It included essays on birth and burial, food and sex, the brit and tattoos.
And last week, in a lengthy article on “The New Jews” (that is, hipster Judaism among Gen Xers and Yers), CNN.com devoted an inordinate amount of space to Jewish tattoos.
Taken together, the focus on the totems and taboos of the Jewish body is a reminder of how deeply tradition and religion are caught up in issues of the body — as Konner writes, “how and how not to change it, care for it, reproduce it, satisfy its insistent demands, bless and thank God for its myriad functions, and dispose of it after all these functions cease.”
And few things seem to raise these questions as pointedly and controversially as the tattoo. Jews, we know from circumcision, are pioneers when it comes to carving our very identities on (male) flesh. So why, especially in a community whose members have ignored so many other traditional taboos, does the tattoo remain such a flashpoint for Jewish argument?
The CNN piece is illustrated with a photo of Jewish 20-somethings with stars of David inked on their chests — flouting the unequivocal Biblical injunction against voluntarily submitting to a tattoo. (Yes, you can be buried in a Jewish cemetery if you have a tattoo. No, you’d be hard-pressed to find a rabbi who would approve of your decision to get one.)
Cynics might dismiss such tattoos as provocations or the herd’s submission to fad and fashion. No doubt there’s some of that: The Pew Research Center says 36 percent of Americans ages 18-25 sport tattoos, and 40 percent among those 26-40.
But scratch beneath the surface, as it were, and you find a lot of people placing a lot of meaning in their tattoos.
I’m a fan of Miami Ink, the TLC reality show about a tattoo shop. I find the process grotesquely fascinating and often marvel at the artistry of the inkers. But what keeps me coming back are the stories. The show is cannily edited to focus on the meaning the customers attach to their tattoos. Some are memorializing a fallen friend or loved one, others are marking a milestone in their lives, or honoring their god (or gods). It doesn’t take an anthropologist to see these as religious impulses, and the tattoos as a ritual act.
Before you scoff at the next middle-aged friend who gets a tattoo, read Jo-Anne Mort’s moving essay in Tablet. Inspired by the inked Israeli students she sees on a visit, Mort goes to a Tel Aviv tattoo shop and picks a black rose for her right shoulder. She reveals that it’s actually her third tattoo — the others are marks she received from an oncologist to guide her six-month radiation treatment for curable breast cancer. “My new tattoo is something I did for me,” writes Mort. “It’s about my own personal choice, making a decision for which I was fully in control.”
Mort didn’t choose a Jewish symbol, but those who do, filmmaker Andy Abrams tells CNN, aren’t necessarily rebelling from tradition.
“They’re being overtly Jewish,” Abrams says. “They’re saying, ‘I’m Jewish. I’m proud. And I’m willing to wear it on my skin.’”
That willingness freaks out parents beyond the Biblical injunction, I’m guessing. I think if my kids came home with a Jewish tattoo, I’d be proud at some level that they would want to celebrate their Jewishness, and appalled that they’d seek to do it in so un-Jewish a way. I’d worry about the feelings of Holocaust survivors and their children, for whom a tattoo is an obscene symbol of their persecution. And that would lead me to historical memories, and of the times when and places where Jews needed to be able to hide their Jewishness to survive.
The permanence bothers me in another way. A permanent mark represents the naive belief that the things you think are hip and/or important today will be hip and/or important to you in the same way in 20 years. But time has a way of mocking our youthful enthusiasms, just as it betrays the aging body. Jewish identity, like any identity, should be allowed to evolve, grow, deepen. Judaism is a series of living, breathing acts of belonging, ritual, and community, not a static drawing on the skin.
I think tattoos should be like the Kabala: You shouldn’t play around with them until you’re 40. The Mishna tells us that’s the age of understanding. Of course by then, you won’t want to show much of your skin anyway.
CLARIFICATION: The original version of this column referred to the traditional Jewish ban on tattoos as a “rabbinic prohibition." In its technical sense, a “rabbinic prohibition” (D'Rabbanan) is a serious injunction, but even more stringent is a Biblical injunction (D’Oraita). The ban on tattoos is indeed a Biblical injunction. The injunctions against the permanent imprinting of one's body, tattooing, scarification, and shaving with a razor are all clustered together in Leviticus 19: 27-28. They constitute, respectively, negative commandments numbers 151, 152, and 153. The NJJN thanks Rabbi Avraham Pinsker of Elizabeth for the clarification. Thec olumn has been changed to reflect the clarification.
Andrew Silow-Carroll is Editor-in-Chief of the New Jersey Jewish News. Between columns you can read his writing at the JustASC blog.