First it’s time to dispel the rumor: a tattoo does not prevent someone from being buried in a Jewish cemetery. The Torah forbids defacing our bodies, but there is no such stipulation. In Yiddish we call this, a “Bubba Maaseh”- a grandmother’s tale, and it’s not true.
Recently it was argued on these pages that tattoos are a new form of art. Being that Jews are self-expressive, the writer claimed, “It’s the Jewish way to question old ways and assumed norms.” Judaism accepts nothing on blind faith, we are taught to ask questions. Students of the Talmud refined the skill of critical thinking. Challenging presumptions in the search for truth. Morality is not based on our feelings, or the ethos of the day. The critical analysis that fills the Talmud and other Jewish sources is to discover the ancient truth and teaching. The foundation of Judaism is a “Mesorah”-a tradition that has been transmitted generation to generation. It reaches back to Mount Sinai 3330 years ago, when there was an encounter between G-d and man and the Torah was given. In other words, if we create new ideas that stand in opposition to that tradition then in essence we are rejecting Judaism.
This is because Torah is different than any other body of knowledge. Torah is a Divine Wisdom transmitted to mankind by G-d to provide direction and guidance in life. Human wisdom changes with each new idea or scientific discovery. Torah-Divine Wisdom transcends the limitations of time and place. Because it was given by G-d to humankind, it applies in all times and all places. Our struggle is to apply its ideas to contemporary challenges.
The prohibition against tattoos is a Biblical Commandment. Judaism views the body as sacred. Modern culture says we have a right to our body, Judaism says we have a responsibility to protect it. That’s why we bury our dead and cremation is forbidden. Harming the body, or making an unnecessary permanent mark, such as a tattoo, is prohibited. One might argue that it’s a kind of art, but in the eyes of Judaism that is irrelevant (and then there is always the risk of inscribing “I love Sally,” that’s still there when the love fades). G-d who has entrusted us with our body, instructs us to treat it with care and respect.
There is a bigger question here. Is Judaism what we define, can we pick and choose what to accept and what to reject. Or, do we endeavor to live up to the teachings of the Torah, realizing that it’s a Divine guidebook that transcends the limitations of today or tomorrow. If we choose to redefine Judaism according to the latest whim, what makes it Judaism, and what are the limits of that change? Because a Jew does something that does not make it Jewish. It’s Jewish when it follows the teachings of the Torah.
RABBI DAVID ELIEZRIE is at Congregation Beth Meir HaCohen/Chabad. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.