I still remember when my mom first told me that she, “kind of liked” the umbrella tattoo I have on my chest, just above my heart. We were in the lobby of the Theatre J waiting for the doors to open to the dragapella group we were going to see called The Kinsey Sicks.
My parents have always been very supportive of my brother and I. That support extends well beyond the superficial to the deeply meaningful and truly powerful. My younger brother is trans, and my parents have been allies every step of the way. Despite their completely open views, something about tattoos strikes a chord. They will always tell me that my body is mine and I can do with it as I please, but at the same time, I think they would have prefered to see my skin remain unadulterated. Why?
According to a 2006 survey conducted by Pew Research, 40 percent of Americans between the ages of 26 and 40 have at least one tattoo; 36 percent of those aged 18-25 report having a tattoo. Those numbers most likely have gone up in the past nine years.
The source of the prohibition against tattoos is Vayikra 19:28: “You shall not make gashes in your flesh for a dead person; you shall not etch a tattoo on yourselves: I am the Lord.”
The Torah uses the term ketovet ka’aka when referring to what we call a tattoo; ketovet is derived from the root letters kaf, tav, vet, which means to write, but the second word, ka’aka is harder to translate as this is the only time it appears in the Torah. It is translated as both incisions or writing/drawing. There are some schools of thoughts that say that the only kinds of tattoos that are prohibited are by the process of incising the skin and then filling it with ink, not with the modern process of using a needle to inject ink below the surface of the skin. Other schools of thought interpret any form of permanent writing to be prohibited.
Rabbi Shimon, indicates that the only the prohibition is against a tattoo that includes the name of an idol (you shall not etch a tattoo on yourselves: I am the Lord), while the Minchat Chinuch 253:1 prohibits permanent marking of the skin even if no ink is applied, and Tosafot says that there is a rabbinic prohibition against even temporary writing that looks like a tattoo, while both Rambam and Shulchan Aruch indicate that in order to violate the prohibition you need both pierce the skin and need to apply color, not just ink.
Another idea surrounding the ban on tattoos and why it may not be applicable in a modern world, with a modern interpretation of halacha is that in biblical times, ink was something very different than what it is now. The ink itself may not have been kosher, or even verifiably safe to put into one’s body. Additionally, any kind of incision put a person at risk of infection. In that light, a tattoo is certainly not worth the risk. However, today, the circumstances are quite different.
One thing that is clear amongst the debate, is that having tattoos does not prevent a person from having a Jewish burial in a Jewish cemetery. Just as those who ate treif, choose not to keep Shabbat, or took interest on loans can be buried in a Jewish cemetery, so can those who did not obey the prohibition against tattooing. “You can’t be buried with your family if you get that butterfly on your ankle, now eat more chicken soup, you’re too skinny…” is just an urban legend made up my our collective grandmothers.
But, old myths die hard, and many tattooed Jews in their 20’s and 30’s say they are criticized by other Jews, both relatives and strangers, or even by non-Jews. For a long, long time I felt weird, bashful, even ashamed of showing my tattoos in shul. Any other place, any day of the week except Shabbat, I would not think twice about letting (all five) of them show, but in shul I kept them covered. I am not sure if it was out of respect, just as I would never eat traif in shul, or if it was because I was afraid of being judged.
We violate halacha on a daily basis. Many Jews choose not to keep kosher, or shomer shabbos, or shomer negiah. Why are tattoos so divisive? Is it because they are a permanent, visual reminder of a choice to disregard a prohibition from the Torah? Is it because they are a reminder of the Holocaust?
Especially for Jews of an older generation, tattoos do represent the Holocaust, not self-expression or art. “Tattooing during the Holocaust was an enormous instrument of degradation,” says Michael Berenbaum, a rabbi and Holocaust scholar who played a key role in the creation of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. “Survivors were always told that you no longer have a name, your name is now your number. And they found tattoos to be one of the indelible marks of depersonalization.”  However, this is not the story for those of us who are at least two generations removed from the Holocaust experience. For many of us, the fact that we are embracing tattoos, often using their design as a direct expression of our Jewish identity is the perfect response to the weaponization of tattoos against our grandparents’ generation. We are turning a bad thing into something positive.
These days I let my tattoos show when they will, even if that’s in shul. I have found that I am far from the only one there with tattoos, and in fact am sometimes not the one with the most body art. I love what I have chosen to put on my skin, else it wouldn’t be there – my body art is truly an expression of me.
American Jews are very idiosyncratic when it comes to our acceptance of a la cart halachic practice. A little more knowledge about the situation helps (don’t get all of your information about where you can be buried from The Nanny), and an open mind goes further. If this conversation is about the biblical interpretation of the prohibition against tattoos, it surely isn’t over. However I think it is about learning to accept that our generation is more fluid in its understanding of Judaism, which might make us look like inked-up rebels on the surface, but also leads us to develop a real connection with the why of it all underneath. We are a unique generation of Jews who do it “our way” but that’s much better than not doing it at all.
Michele is the founder of Chopping Block Copy, where she is a full-service copywriter / editor / designer. She gets overexcited about bio-luminescence, corduroy, the roller derby, sustainability, people who can compose a proper sentence, and Grumbacher titanium white oil paint and drinks her whiskey neat, because that’s the only way.
Michele is the community leader for Moishe House Without Walls, D.C. which is a global network of community organizers who seek to create pluralistic Jewish programming that makes Judaism meaningful in a modern world. Find them on Facebook!
Check out more of her writing at writteninthemargins.com and email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.