I was reading this past Shabbat, the first book in a series on “Jewish Choices, Jewish Voices” by two friends, Rabbi Elliot Dorff and Louis Newman. The topic of this first book was Jewish attitudes about the body. The middle section of the book had a series of essays by different people about their Judaism and how it colors their decisions about their bodies. I wanted to have a quote from the book to show you here but I packed it up and put it away already so I will have to go with my memory (which I admit is not always so good since I forgot I wanted to quote a section before I packed up the book).
In the section on tattoos, there were a couple of essays about why Jews would decide to display their Judaism through body art. All were all quick to point out, correctly, that a Jew with a tattoo is still permitted to be buried in a Jewish cemetery. What intrigued me, however, was the fact that each one noted that the Bible is clear and explicit that marking or cutting the body is forbidden (Lev. 18:28). One went so far as to note that this had been interpreted to mean that one had to do both, cut the body and leave a permanent mark in order for it to be a sin. (There is also one authority that insists that the only prohibition is not to tattoo on the body, the name of God. Everything else would be okay). In every case in the book, however, this biblical passage was not to be a deterrent to the author for getting a tattoo. Their love of the art, their love of their bodies and their love of the freedom to do what they wish, was too great to let this biblical passage deter them from decorating their bodies with Jewish and other symbols.
There are a number of points of discussion here. First, how is this different from the prohibitions of homosexuality that are just as explicit in Leviticus and which we feel can no longer apply because of the great hurt and discrimination they bring to the homosexual community? Is body art today fundamentally different than the reasons for tattoos in ancient times? What happens to Torah when we just ignore passages because they just don’t speak to us? Where does this leave us in relationship to adultery and illicit sexual relations? Is this a fine example of a “slippery slope”?
I find myself recalling a story of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichiv, an early Hasidic master. On the eve of Pesach, he sent his Hasidim to bring him all the Turkish tobacco, all the Austrian silk handkerchiefs and all the hametz in Berdichiv. The Hasidim were puzzled. The first two items were often smuggled across the nearby border to avoid custom duties. The hametz, was forbidden to be in any Jewish home on the eve of Pesach. The Hasidim made their rounds and the Jews, unhappy with the Rabbi’s call, still parted with the contraband. Soon there were two tables filled with tobacco and handkerchiefs, but the hametz table was empty. “God in Heaven”, prayed Rabbi Levi Yitzchak, “the Austrian king passes many laws, and hires soldiers and custom agents to collect his taxes and you see how little the people fear his laws, but you, God, you have no soldiers and no custom agents only your law in the Torah, “You shall have no hametz in your homes, and see … see how the whole community keeps your laws! Why God have you not redeemed us?”
Why do we keep the laws of the Torah and the Rabbinic Laws as well? Is it because we fear the wrath of God? Certainly there are those who see the good that comes from our commitment to the values of Judaism and our commitment to Mitzvot. But why are we so quick to just ignore the laws that we are unhappy with? What is it that inspires us to follow God’s command even though we no longer fear divine punishment?
I would like to think the answer is love. If we love God, we follow what God requires. Much the same way we do all kinds of things for the ones we love; we listen to God because we love God and God loves us. I do lots of things for my wife, not because I find them fulfilling (like taking out the trash) but because I know it is a way I can show her that I love her. My children call home not because I require them to call, but because they love their parents and go out of their way to show their love. I found myself wondering if these proponents of tattoo art would continue to add tattoos if their beloved asked them to stop? It made me wonder how much their love of God limits the way they live their lives. I don’t want to declare all tattooed Jews as sinners; I want them to show their love of God by living their lives answering the call of God in the Bible.
Unlike homosexuality, this tattooing prohibition in Leviticus is not asking anyone to give up something that is part of the very essence of who they are as a human being. Domestic violence begins when a person makes unreasonable demands on their partner that escalates into a controlling nightmare. But here, with body art, it is not an issue of the essence of what it means to be human, it is a matter of art, style and taste. God asks us not to cut and mark our bodies. Do we love God enough to pay attention? God asks us also to live a moral and ethical life, something much harder than forgoing a tattoo. God asks us to limit the things we are permitted to eat and to refrain from working one day out of seven. These are serious matters that cut to the very essence of what it means to be a Jew. These are areas where we Jews show a deep and abiding love of God.
Tattooing is nowhere near this crucial in Jewish Life. Is the art so important that we ignore the call of a loving God? God will not deny us divine love if we mark our bodies, but should we not show our love for our bodies and for God by leaving the “canvas” blank? Rather than decorate my body, I decorate my life with acts of kindness and with acts of love to my fellow human beings and to God.