I’ve heard so many different things about Jews and tattoos. Is it true that Jews with tattoos can’t be buried in Jewish cemeteries? What about if they are Holocaust survivors?
As with so much of Jewish life and learning, in regard to Jews and tattoos there is the straightforward, surface response, and then there are the layers of meaning and the challenges to be wrestled with that wait and beckon beneath the surface. The straightforward response is clear, and immediately dispels popular misconceptions. Jewish law does in fact prohibit permanent tattoos, but if a tattoo does not reflect idolatrous practice, there is no consequence or sanction against the bearer of a tattoo. There are no restrictions of any kind on participation in Jewish religious and communal life by a Jew with a tattoo. This includes burial in a Jewish cemetery, for which a tattoo poses no barrier whatsoever.
While in ancient times, an idolatrous tattoo may have expressed fealty to a pagan deity, we may more likely consider today the inappropriateness of symbols of other religions or the expression of values that most Jews would recognize as counter to our deepest values, such as the objectification of women or the celebration of death. The rabbis ruled long ago that a Jew tattooed under duress by another bore no culpability. It would be obscene to consider a Holocaust survivor bearing an Auschwitz number on her or his arm as being in any violation of a Jewish norm.
As we go beneath the surface, it is helpful to consider the verse in the Torah by which tattoos, at least before the fact, are prohibited: “And you shall not make a wound in your flesh for one who has died nor put a tattoo upon yourselves; I am God” (Lev. 19:28). The second part of the verse is clearly the direct source we are concerned with, but there is a connection with the first part. That we are not to harm ourselves in grief is an affirmation of life, encouraging us to go on in the face of loss, to see the value of our own life that is still to be lived. While the connection between the two parts of the verse may seem far-fetched at first, the prohibition against tattoos is also an affirmation of each individual life. Every person is beautiful as they are, each one created in God’s image: “b’tzelem Elohim” (Gen. 1:27).
In a society obsessed with body image, the image of God is too often obscured in the quest for perfection. While for many, body art is a sincere and meaningful expression of personal creativity and uniqueness, there is an ironic danger that such expression can play into a devaluing of the way we are and offer subtle pressure to do something about it. Beyond popular misconception among Jews, tattoos represent in effect a prohibition without sanction, inviting us in the asking to wrestle with deeper questions than consequence. In today’s ubiquitous presence of tattoos on celebrity flesh and ordinary folk, there is an opportunity to consider meaning beneath the surface of skin and text.