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The Tattoo: Still Taboo?

The Tattoo: Still Taboo?

Drew Barrymore gets hers removed, but tattoos among Jews persist, as in ancient times.

Drew Barrymore, it has been reported in recent days, is having her tattoos removed.

The entertainment press says the actress is having laser surgery to erase several tattoos because she plans to convert to Judaism. (Her husband, Will Kopelman, is Jewish).

The reports noted that Barrymore would not be allowed burial in a Jewish cemetery unless she had the tattoos removed.
What is the source of prohibitions of tattoos for Jews, and are they relevant today?

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 103b) records a bizarre dispute about a tattoo that King Jehoiakim of Judah had on his male organ. Interpreting the “abominations … found upon him” (II Chron. 36:8) as a tattoo, one rabbi averred that it consisted of the name of a pagan deity, while another rabbi disagreed, stating that in fact it was the name of God that had been inked there.

Another Talmudic passage (Makkot 21a) indicates that the dispute about Jeoiakim’s tattoo may hinge upon the interpretation of Leviticus 19:38 (“You shall not … make any tattoo marks on yourselves: I am the Lord”). According to the first rabbi (echoed many centuries later by Maimonides), the Jewish aversion to tattoos is part of its age-old polemic against idolatry, contravening God’s declaration that “I am the Lord,” especially when paying explicit homage to a foreign god. In the view of the second sage, however, the biblical ban on tattoos is non-rational, rooted in divine fiat. As such, the most egregious type of tattoo, the most audacious rebellion against Jewish tradition, is specifically one that contains God’s name.

In some respects, this dispute continues even today: one’s attitude toward the increased incidence of Jews with tattoos, including ones with Jewish themes, may depend on whether one views tattoos as problematic due to their association with non-Jewish culture or due to a long-standing but ultimately non-rational cultural taboo.

A recent and much-discussed New York Times article profiled a mainly Israeli phenomenon of grandchildren getting tattoos to match those that their grandparents were forced to get at Auschwitz. No doubt, this trend is partially rooted in a desire to commemorate and personalize the Holocaust. Yet it seems that it also represents an attempt to adopt tattoos as a time-honored Jewish practice. After all, how can a tattoo be untraditional if it is identical to the one that one’s European zeyde has on his forearm? In fact, according to research conducted by Rabbi Rochelle Tulik, about two-fifths of Jews’ tattoos can be identified as Jewish in some way.

Tattoos have become quite popular and acceptable in both the American and Israeli Jewish communities as attitudes changed in the broader culture: according to a 2007 Pew study, almost 40 percent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 40 have tattoos, but only 10 percent of those between 41 and 64. Yet until quite recently, tattoos were considered taboo within the American Jewish community, even as numerous other biblical prohibitions were observed mainly in the breach. Personal experience (a cousin whose family was willing to accept her gentile fiancée but mortified when they learned of his tattoo) and popular culture (two sitcoms whose main characters are intermarried Jews — “The Nanny” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm” — devoted episodes to Jewish anxieties about tattoos) indicate that the tattoo taboo persisted even as many others eroded significantly.

The trend toward Jewish-themed tattoos, coupled with the persistence of the myth that Jews with tattoos cannot be buried in a Jewish cemetery, imply that American-Jewish attitudes toward tattoos were fueled, at least in part, by the belief that tattoos are — or, until very recently, were — quintessentially foreign to Jewish culture.

The myth about the cemetery (perhaps finally debunked by reports that Amy Winehouse was given a traditional Jewish funeral) is particularly instructive in this regard. Whether he invented it or merely popularized it, the earliest record in pop culture of this erroneous belief is a comedy routine by Lenny Bruce. As partially recounted in his 1965 autobiography, “How to Talk Dirty and Influence People,” the comic returned from the navy with a tattoo on his arm, whereupon a traditionally minded aunt informs him that he can never be buried in a Jewish cemetery. Bruce’s solution? Let them cut off the tattooed arm and bury it in a Catholic cemetery. Applying Bruce’s own famous “Jewish/goyish” dichotomy, it makes perfect sense why a goyish tattoo, obtained while serving in the goyish navy, would relegate someone to the goyish cemetery. Bruce’s grotesque solution externalizes his sense of belonging neither wholly in the Jewish nor wholly in the goyish cemetery.

Lenny Bruce thus agrees with Maimonides and the first Talmudic opinion that tattoos are problematic in that they are foreign to Jewish culture. In this reading, a Jewish-themed tattoo indeed mitigates the problem.

On the other hand, it is possible that the prohibition on tattoos outlasted most others because, unlike transgressions related to sex, food and money, it is not subject to accident or appetite? This was dramatized in the Israeli show “Srugim”: a newly ex-religious character’s tattoo demonstrates that for her, unlike her boyfriend who abandoned observance for sex and seafood, the decision to leave tradition was part of her identity, and she is willing to literally and figuratively stigmatize herself for its sake. This reading tracks closely with the non-rationalist Talmudic opinion, as it would seem to make little difference whether the tattoo is Jewish-themed or not.

Thus, the contemporary debate about Auschwitz-style, Jewish-themed, and other types of tattoos shares similarities with a rabbinic debate from some 1,500 years ago. If the Talmud is any indication, this debate will continue to go on for a very long time.

Elli Fischer is a writer and Hebrew-English translator in Israel.

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