Nearly every Jew, from those who go to synagogue only on holidays to those who dutifully follow Jewish law, has heard that you’re not supposed to desecrate your body…especially with tattoos. ‘‘If you get a tattoo, you can’t be buried in a Jewish cemetery’’ is something that was hammered into me as long as I can remember…from my parents and grandparents. Believe me when I tell you that tenet has deterred many a Jew from being inked, even as tattoos have become widespread among celebrities and housewives alike.
According to a 2007 poll of 1,500 people conducted by the Pew Research Center, 36 percent of 18- to 25-year-olds and 40 percent of 26- to 40-year-olds have at least one tattoo. Still, even Larry David was so haunted by the cemetery rule that he wrote an episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” in which he bribes a gravedigger to have his mother reburied in a Jewish cemetery despite a small tattoo on her butt.
But the edict isn’t true. Eight rabbinical scholars from highly respected institutions like the Jewish Theological Seminary and Yeshiva University, say it’s an urban legend, most likely started because a specific Jewish cemetery had a policy against tattoos. Jewish parents and grandparents picked up on it and over time, their revulsion for tattoos was presented as scriptural doctrine.
Unfortunately, rabbis still disagree about just how bad it is to get inked and old myths die hard. Many tattooed Jews in their 20’s and 30’s say they often are criticized by fellow Jews, both relatives and strangers. Andy Abrams, a filmmaker, has spent five years making a documentary called “Tattoo Jew.” In his interviews with dozens of Jews with body art, he noted the prevalence of Jewish themed tattoos…from Stars of David to elaborate Holocaust memorials, surprising since one reason Jewish culture opposes tattoos is that Jews were involuntarily inked in concentration camps.
Jewish law on tattooing is vague. Leviticus 19:28 states, “You shall not make gashes in your flesh for the dead nor incise any marks on yourself: I am the Lord.” It’s unclear whether the passage strictly outlaws tattoos that refer to a god, or whether it generally condemns any personal adornment. Ear piercing is not controversial. Historical context is paramount. When Leviticus was written, tattooing was largely a pagan practice, done to mark slaves or to show devotion to a pharaoh. Since tattooing has evolved the rule may be outdated.
It’s difficult to know exactly how many young Jews are being tattooed, because no organization tracks these numbers. But a pro-tattoo community is emerging online. Christopher Stedman, a 23-year-old student in Rohnert Park, Calif., started a MySpace group called “Jews with Tattoos” in 2004, after noticing more Jewish friends being tattooed. The group now has hundreds of members.
Some use tattoos along with piercings to make a statement that announces their alienation from society. Others choose tribal symbols in an effort to formalize their subculture. Regardless of the religious perspective on tattooing, the number of people getting tattoos continues to grow and will likely continue to grow for years to come.
Arming yourself with knowledge is the best way to assure you of a rewarding and safe tattooing experience. Be sure to visit us at http://www.best-biz-ops.com for the finest tattoo designs, equipment and talk. See you there!