In the Words of the Donkey: JEWISH TATTOOS?

Shvat 25, 5767

All names herein have been changed.

My buddy Sunny is a senior in high school. He is one of my closest friends and we hang out quite a bit. Sunny is also what you might call strange. Perhaps might is not a strong enough word. In fact, if you do not find him strange, you must be stranger than he. Born into a non-religious family, Sunny and his mother, Screechy, eventually found their way into the arms of what they fondly refer to as "The Cult;" Jews for Jesus. By the time I met Sunny they were both certified real Jews with no Jesus in sight. He only ever comes to synagogue with me. I do not know the last time his mother went.

My friend Dinah graduated high school last year. She is the type you expect not to take the standard path in life. I am not entirely sure what she is up to, but she is the type of beautifully alternative girl who you expect to see working through a couple of years of community college, take a year or two off to ponder deep things in coffee houses, and eventually get a degree in something totally unexpected. You certainly do no expect to see her type in synagogue in large numbers.

Sunny, Dinah, and Screechy all have tattoos. These tattoos also happen to be Jewish in nature. Sunny's is "Lo Yisa Goy" written on one forearm in large letters and "El Goy Cherev" on the other forearm. Dinah's is a Magen David and the saying "Ani V'atah N'shaneh et Haolam." Screechy's is simply a rainbow-y Magen David with "Chai" written inside of it.

I should state my bias here up front. I do not understand the urge to get tattoos. I do not want a disreputable-looking fellow poking ink-laden needles into my skin to create an image that will be there forever. I also happen to think that tattoos are impulsive.

Sunny announced a few weeks ago that he was going to get these tattoos on his forearms. This set off a number of alarm bells in my head. The first one was about the disreputable man with the aforementioned ink-laden needles. The second was the standard "Jews do not get tattoos alarm." The third was concerning placement. They happen to be in a place that Jews have, at a fairly recent time in history, were forced by disreputable Germans with ink-laden needles to get tattoos.

I have already addressed the first alarm bell, but let's go to the third one, then backtrack to the second one later. I hate talking about the Shoah. I think it is over-emphasized as a source of Jewish identity. I want my Jewish identity to spring from the triumphs of Melech David, Theodore Herzl, and Tzahal rather than from the victimization of Elie Wiesel, Auschwitz, and Anne fucking Frank. Thus, the immediate jump to the forefront of my mind that the Shoah made with regard to the tattoos only pissed my off to myself. Screechy later explained Sunny's choice of the forearm away as recapturing that part of the arm by re-branding it with something of Jewish significance. I do not buy it. It is simply another iteration of the oft-repeated claim that we have to take a posthumous victory over Hitler. I find that notion unsettling and distasteful.

As for the second alarm bell, the "Jews do not get tattoos" alarm, a whole can of worms flies open. For background on this part, you might want to read BZ's excellent discussion of Reform halachah over at his blog, Mah Rabu. His question, "How can Reform Jews claim to be following the ethical commandments, those that are Bein Adam L'chavero, if we really aren't?" brings up for me the same issue of Reform halachah that my reaction to Sunny's tattoos does. Why is it that every Reform Jew can tell you that Jews do not get tattoos, but they do not know how much they are required to give to the poor each year? Why is it that some ritual things, such as Kashrut, are mainstream in Reform, but others, which make equal sense, such as talit katan, are not?

Thoughts? Do you know people with "Jewish" tattoos? What do you think about tattoos? 


lbk said...

For some reason, I keep coming back and re-reading this post, so I figured I should probably respond. Unfortunately, my reactions are probably less than relevant: I have no tattoos, Jewish or otherwise and I have the same reaction to the disreputable bearers of ink-laden needles that David describes.

In addition, I am probably highly typical of the parental generation with a Pavlovian reaction of "tattoos aren't Jewish." Furthermore, while I am aware of the 10% rule for tzedakah, it's not one of the Mitzvot I go out of my way to fulfill. Quite frankly, as David describes, I'm not sure there are any Mitzvot I go out of my way to fulfill. I don't keep kosher, I haven't yet chosen a way to overtly and consistently observe Shabbat and I have yet to become comfortable with a tallit gadol, much less the tallit katan.

And still, the whole concept of Jews with tattoos disturbs me on a visceral basis. I'm a physician, so I worry about the spread of blood-borne diseases. I'm a pediatrician so I worry about irrevocable adolescent impulses. I'm a Jewish mother, so I don't want my children deliberately changing their bodies which are created in God's (and my) images.

Don't even talk to me about facial piercings other than the earlobes. I don't think this is a particularly Jewish concern on my part. (It would be somewhat indefensible, since I personally feel naked when I'm not wearing pierced earrings. At times I even choose my earrings before the rest of an outfit.) Why would it be less offensive to alter earlobes than any other portion of our embodiment of God's image?

However, David's topic resonates. I find myself comparing my attitude toward tattoos to my attitude about newborn circumcision. From a medical standpoint, I regard it as an unnecessary cosmetic procedure which inflicts pain on unconsenting minors. As a Jew, circumcision is a defining Mitzvah for any male newborn baby, with or without the ritual of a Bris.

It is an interesting parallel existing in my own concept of Judaism. A Mitzvah of surgical commission as compared to the tattoo omission Mitzvah. Thanks for making me think!!

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