Tattooing and Body Piercing in Jewish Law

Now, there’s an interesting title for a blog post. Actually, let me explain the context. I have been teaching a class this year in which we have been studying  teshuvot, Rabbinic legal rulings, of the Conservative movement and the last teshvua that we studied was written by Rabbi Alan Lucas on the subject of Tattoing and Body Piercing. The teshuva was written back in 1997 and was approved by the Rabbinical Assembly Committee on Jewish Law and Standards.  As with all of the teshuvot we have studied, I am interested not only in the specifics of the law but in more general questions that the subject raises.

With regard to tattooing, Rabbi Lucas concludes, and I agree 100%, that tattooing is against Jewish law. He gives many reasons for this and to all of those I would add one more which he implies but does not state in detail. The fact that so many Jews were tattooed against their will by the Nazis should compel us to avoid willingly being tattooed. It seems to me that the very association of this act with the savage, inhuman cruelty of the Nazi makes tattooing wrong for Jews.

However, Rabbi Lucas  also brings up one critical point. He says that under no circumstances should the fact that person has a tattoo be a reason to restrict their participation in the Jewish community, whether we talk about ritual roles such as reading Torah for the congregation or, and this is the most frequent question asked on the subject, burial in a Jewish cemetery. Despite what thousands of well intentioned Jewish parents have told their children, having a tattoo does not prevent one from being buried in a Jewish cemetery.

I find this to be a critical point because to teach otherwise is to imply that one act performed over the course of one’s life could possibly disqualify someone from being part of our community.  With the possible exception of those who denigrate Judaism or the Jewish people publicly and do not express any regret- and even this is debatable-  a Jew who “sins” is still a Jew. So, even if one were to consider getting tattooed a sin which it is in the strictest definition of the word, it would not condemn a person to a life outside of the Jewish community in life or in death. We believe in teshuva, in repentence which, in this case, might be hard to “undo” in that tattoo removal is so difficult. But, we also need to keep perspective that as much as one might find tattooing objectionable and advise and teach against it, it should not today  be viewed necessarily as a sign of unethical or immoral behavior and we should be more concerned about other actions that do have more serious implications for the world.

Then, Rabbi Lucas turned his attention to body piercing which of course is even more of an issue today than in 1997 when he wrote the teshuva. Here too, I agree with what he teaches.

He argues that there are many precedents in Jewish law for body piercing, usually restricted to the ear and nose, all the way back to the Torah. And, he reasons, besides our own sense of what “seems right”, there is no reason to make any distinction between the piercing of an ear or any other part of the body. If one accepts piercing ears as being appropriate, then it is hard to draw the line someplace else unless, and he correctly argues this point, there is an increased danger of infection because of the particular part of the body being pierced.

He argues that there is really no foundation to forbid body piercing according to Jewish law. One can say that it doesn’t show respect for the body, an important principle within our tradition, but if one says that they see in such piercing beauty and an enhancement of their body, it is hard to say objectively that they are wrong.

But, then he brings up one other point saying that he knows many people think there is just something that doesn’t seem right about it and it doesn’t seem like the way a Jew should act even though it is permitted.

I am fascinated by this line of reasoning. Whether we talk about body piercing or any other subject, the fact that Jewish law might permit something doesn’t mean that it is necessarily positive. This brings up a very serious discussion of Jewish law: are there moral guidelines that exist outside of Jewish law? Can a person who observes halacha scrupulously still fall short of moral or ethical standards for being a mentsch? And, if that is true, how could Jewish law endorse an action which is less than perfect?

These are very serious questions indeed and I would urge you to think about them. The example of body piercing, permitted in Jewish law, but to some objectionable, brings this question into focus. However, there are many more questions that could come from this same discussion.

Eating meat is permitted according to Jewish law, but perhaps being a vegetarian is, as some Rabbis have argued, the ultimate ethical response to our needs to eat.

Sharing your limited supply of water with someone when you both are lost and near death from thirst  is wrong according to Jewish law if you are putting yourself in more grave danger without any guarantee that either of you would survive. Yet, would it be wrong to violate Jewish law in this case and share the water thinking it is a more ethical decision?

We’re a long way from body piercing when we discuss questions of this kind but this is what is fascinating about studying Jewish law. Even the most specific question can lead to very serious issues conceptually and philosophically as we strive to sanctify our lives to the highest degree possible.


One thought on “Tattooing and Body Piercing in Jewish Law

  1. Laurel F.

    Glad that’s your attitude, since I have tattoos, from before I identified myself as being Jewish. I probably wouldn’t get one now, knowing the religion’s views on the subject, but they still have meaning for me for what they meant at the time, so I wouldn’t want to have them removed.

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