“See, I have engraved You on the palms of my hands”
– Isaiah 49:16
“One shall say, ‘I am the Lord’s,’ and another shall use the name of Jacob, and another shall mark his arm ‘of the Lord’ and adopt the name of Israel.”
– Isaiah 44:5
“I decked you out in finery… I put a ring in your nose, and earrings in your ears…”
– Ezekiel 16:11
See also Exodus 35:22, Numbers 31:50, Judges 8:24, Isaiah 3:21
I fell in love with the art of the tattoo in my early twenties. The choice that I was able to consciously make to beautify my own body was exhilarating. Choosing the placement, selecting the artist and design took research and thought. Seeing the colors and designs come alive on my flesh is intoxicating.
But I am a Jew. How does body modification fit into my life?
The answer is: Beautifully.
Judaism has a long history of distaste for tattoos and piercings. It is my understanding that this stems from the Jewish concept that we are created b’tzelem Elokim (in the image of God) and that our bodies are to be viewed as a precious gift on loan from God, entrusted into our care, but not our personal property to do with as we choose. This distaste grew stronger with the Holocaust and the tattooing that was forced upon the Jews in the prison camps.
Let’s discuss a common misconception:
Can you be buried in a Jewish cemetery and participate in Jewish ritual if you are tattooed or pierced?
It is not prohibited to bury someone who has tattoos or body piercings in a Jewish cemetery. Although the Torah is interpreted by some to prohibit making a permanent tattoo on one’s body, those who violate this prohibition may still be buried in a Jewish cemetery and participate fully in all synagogue ritual.
I asked IAM member RachelG about her experiences with this and she replied with a personal story regarding being buried in a Jewish cemetery with body modifications:
“After an unfortunate tragedy where a close modified friend of mine committed suicide, his family was allowed to bury him in an orthodox Jewish cemetery. He was practically fully suited in tattoos and wore three earrings in each earlobe. At the funeral service I spoke at length with the orthodox rabbi who was performing the service about Jews and body modification. He told me that these misconceptions were not only outdated, but any Jew who believed in them was not following the ways of God. Jews are a very accepting and understanding people. Who are we to judge one for intentionally changing one’s body to fulfill their own desires?”
Deliberate, permanent disfigurement of the body would be prohibited. But such practices as ear piercing and cosmetic surgery (such as elective rhinoplasty) are not prohibited. The purpose of cosmetic surgery is to make the body more beautiful, not to disfigure it. (from torah.org)
Being modified does not prohibit you from participating in Jewish ritual. The fact that someone may have violated the laws of kashrut at some point in his or her life or violated the laws of Shabbat would not merit such sanctions. The widely believed prohibition against tattooing is certainly no worse.
What puzzles and disturbs me is the quote from a rabbi stating that such practices as ear piercing and plastic surgery(1) are not prohibited because they are meant to beautify and not to disfigure. Who is to say that the purpose of my body modifications are not to make the body more beautiful? Is this for a rabbi to decide? I believe that the decision of what makes my body more beautiful is my own. Why is plastic surgery regarded as acceptable and other forms of body modification are not? What about circumcision which is a permanent modification? Who makes those decisions?
Circumcision is also becoming a challenged ritual within Judaism as more and more Jews regard this practice as a social choice. This is a major body modification and disfigurement to a small child that is not given the choice to modify. It is also common practice among non-Jews to circumcise a male newborn penis, and this practice is not specifically Jewish, though it is common practice among Jews specifically. For more information on the complex issue regarding facts and myths of Jewish ritual circumcision, I invite you to visit jewishcircumcision.org. There are many modern changing views concerning the modification of infants without their consent.
For many people, conscious modification has become a way for them to take ownership of the beauty of their own bodies. For a very long time I felt uncomfortable in my own body. I was too fat, too short, my breasts were droopy — I could come up with a list a mile long. I discovered through modification that I loved my own body more when I got to choose what was happening to it. I would not knowingly disfigure my body. I intend to beautify it at my discretion. I am not the only one and I am far from the only modified Jew. By choosing to tattoo my body, I also feel that I am reclaiming this ritual for beauty rather than the hate and disrespect that was the intent of the Nazis forcibly tattooing the Jews during the holocaust.
My Judaism and my body modification go hand in hand for me. They are both part of who I am and how I represent myself. I am a tattooed Jew. I am proud of both of these facets of my life. I am not ashamed to go to Shul and I am not afraid of the questions. What I dislike is the assumption that I am not as good a Jew because of my modifications. I completely disagree. What I dislike is the prejudice my own Jewish people bestow upon me, and others, for choosing to reclaim the ancient art of body modification. This in itself does not convey the Judaism of acceptance that has always been expressed to me in Shul. I believe this inter-judaic prejudice stems from a sociological prejudice thinly veiled by a misunderstood religious excuse.
How did my family react?
My family ignores it. Don’t ask, don’t tell — sound familiar? — but still love and respect me as who I am. My family’s beliefs are those of conservative Jews and I respect them for that. However, I follow more of a Reconstructionist view. Reconstructionists define Judaism as the evolving religious civilization of the Jewish people and most Jewish people, including Reconstructionists, no longer accept its binding authority. While Reconstructionists are lovers of tradition and support community celebration of the Jewish sacred year and life-cycle events, we also believe that the face of the Jewish community is changing and that individuals have the right to adapt Jewish tradition to new circumstances. That doesn’t make us any less Jewish than those who live by Conservative or Orthodox law (although there would be plenty of argument within Judaism about this).
I think that the belief that body modification is prohibited by the Torah is antiquated, just as other Biblical laws are (and have thus been adjusted to fit modern times). Judaism is evolving in some sects; no longer do we have to hide what may be seen as “against the Torah” to practice our faith. It is quite a relief to do so. If you choose to practice your faith, there are many ways to do so. When you are dealing with Orthodox, Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative movements, we will not agree on each others interpretation of the Torah.
Body Modification is just as much a part of my life as my faith in Judaism. I believe that my modifications beautify my body and bring joy to my life. They do not take away from my faith in God. My personal practice allows me to be who I am, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
1 Editor’s note: It should be added that rhinoplasty has been historically a “Jewish” procedure with the goal of masking — publicly destroying — the Jewish identity in the face of bigotry. One could make the argument that tattoos that uplift the Jewish identity are a far better way to serve God than rhinoplasty ever could be.
Liz Polay-Wettengel (iam:TattooedRedhead) is an executive general manager in Boston Massachusetts where she lives with her husband and two cats. She has a professional background in the music business and writes for several online blogs. Liz has been an active member of the IAM BME community since 2000 and currently runs the membership sponsorship forum and the Jew Crew community forum.
Online presentation copyright © 2004 Shannon Larratt, Liz Polay-Wettengel, and BMEzine.com. Requests to republish must be confirmed in writing. For bibliographical purposes this article was first published online August 19th, 2004 by BMEZINE.COM in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.