What could the Torah possibly have to say about tattoos? Quite a bit, actually. In Torah times, other cultures used tattoos for ceremonial purposes. A tattoo could proclaim the wearer’s dedication to a pagan deity, and a cut in the skin with or without a resulting image was part of mourning customs. The Book of Leviticus, in chapter 19, specifically prohibits “seret lanefesh” — cutting your flesh for the dead — and “k’tovet kaaka” — imprinted marks on your body. The people of Israel were cautioned not to participate in pagan rites.
In chapter 21, at the beginning of this week’s reading, Aaron’s son the Cohanim are told the limits of their mourning: they must not contaminate themselves by contact with dead bodies outside their immediate family, namely mother, father, son, daughter, brother and unmarried sister, to which the rabbis added the wife. No one else. And they are further reminded not to scratch their skin as a sign of mourning.
Looking around today at a widely tattooed generation, we see all kinds of significance visualized on people’s skin — from military symbols like cannons and anchors, to patriotic images from Old Glory to the Statue of Liberty, to religious icons of various kinds. Men and women put their love for each other just outside their hearts. Musicians display their instruments on their arms. Gang members show their allegiance on their torso. The examples go on and on.
Are some of the tattooed generation Jewish? Sure. Are they violating a Halacha — a Jewish law? Yes, but that is probably not the only Halacha they are violating. An interesting question comes up, for them and other tattoo-wearers, when conditions change in their lives and the commitment they witnessed on their skin doesn’t exist any more. One physician I know does a great service to former gang members by removing their tattoos. I would venture to say that more than one Bal T’shuva who returns to Jewish life finds those tattoos embarrasing and gets them removed.
Poskim — rabbinical authorities — have to rule on what counts as a permament tattoo and therefore a violation, and what does not. If you have no paper and you write a note on your hand with ink, no problem. Later you wash it off and it is gone. Similarly if you get your hand stamped at an amusement park so you can get back in, it does not constitute a violation.
One thing we must all acknowledge. Violations, in the last analysis, are more than skin deep. Let tattooed Jews reclaim tradition. Those marks can be erased.