Religion and Tattoos: Judaism

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By Sarah Rosenblum

Family gatherings seem to be the perfect time for surprising your relatives. A 50-year-old uncle brings a 20-something girlfriend or an aunt announces that she is quitting her job and volunteering in a foreign country.  During my family’s Thanksgiving this year, my cousin Steven decided to show off his new tattoo right around the time the pecan pie was being served. While Steven has been on a bit of a tattoo streak this past year, his latest addition was a large Jewish star on his right bicep.

When I saw the tattoo I had feelings of apprehension. On the one hand, I thought it was cool that he did identify himself as Jewish, considering I never really saw him showing any interest in our religion. Yet, according to Jewish law, having a tattoo is forbidden and thus it is quite ironic that he chose to mark himself with the Star of David.

The Torah clearly explains that one should not cause harm to their body, since the human body is essentially a gift from God.  “You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks upon you: I am the LORD.” (Leviticus 19:28)   Bonnie Crammer, the Director of Union’s Hillel, explained that this verse from the Torah is the basis for the Jewish prohibition against tattoos. She said, “As Jews, we also believe that we are created in the divine image and that the body is a sacred vessel. Tattoos are considered to defile the body.”

Although the Jewish religion views the soul to live on after death, the body should be returned to God in its natural whole state.  This is why Jews are buried in a casket instead of being cremated.  I had always been warned by my parents and Hebrew school teachers that Jews who got tattoos would be forbidden from being buried in a Jewish cemetery with their families. I had never really given much thought to the whole thing since I had no real interest in having permanent body art.  Yet, I did begin to wonder if this was a myth after my cousin and some of my friends started getting tattoos.

I checked in with Rabbi Shmuly, the Chabad Rabbi at Union College, to gain some clarity on the subject.  He confirmed that it is in fact a myth that Jews with tattoos cannot have a Jewish burial. Instead, it varies on the burial society since they all have their own rules, which have varied throughout the years. Although most Jews with tattoos wouldn’t have too much trouble getting buried in a Jewish cemetery, it is an issue of great controversy because it does go against what was said in the Torah.

Rabbi Shmuly described his own perspective on tattooing: “Judaism highlights holiness in even the most mundane. Our physical body is created in the Divine image, so we respect it as sacred, not as a scribble pad. A tattoo fulfills only skin deep permanence; only a mitzvah makes an everlasting and meaningful impact.”

While most students don’t think twice about their burial when getting a tattoo, instead they should think about the permanence of this symbol. Often teenagers get tattoos as a fad and then live with that image forever. Others find something so meaningful that they want it to be part of them. Tattoos are a part of our modern culture and religious views often feel outdated. Some Israeli soldiers in the army have tattoos that symbolize their specific troop. I think it will continue to be a heated controversial topic amongst traditional Jewish families and their children. Although many Jewish students feel a twinge of guilt about getting a tattoo, I think it is typically more about familial guilt than guilt from God. I sure know that my cousin, Steven will not be rocking a muscle tee at our upcoming Passover Seder.

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