Tattoos & Torah: What do today’s teens in St. Louis think?

Teens, jews and tattoos, oh my!

By Elizabeth Berson Junior, Parkway North

The daily life of a teenager is filled with opportunities to participate in self-expression and cultivate an individual voice. Many teens have taken to getting tattoos in order to satisfy the need to convey themselves to the world. They are often being used as a statement of individuality or a reminder of something meaningful.

But getting a tattoo is not without its risks, including skin infections, potential HIV exposure and emotional regret later in life. However, for Jewish teens there is a deeper issue with tattoo art. As specified by the Torah, it is against Jewish tradition to make permanent markings on oneself.

This law comes from Leviticus 19:28 and reads, “And you shall not print any marks upon you.”Although it is clear that there is a law against tattoos, interpretations differ based on translations and sects of Judaism. At the time the Torah was received, tattoos were associated with idol worship.

“Many ancient people used tattoos as a means of supposedly drawing power from their gods,” Rabbi Noah Arnow of Kol Rinah explained. “Tattoos were linked to idolatry and thus a Jewish tradition of rejecting tattooing was developed.”

Despite the textual rejection of tattooing in Jewish tradition, many Jewish teens admit that they would not consider the biblical law when deciding to get a tattoo. According to an informal survey conducted through social media for this article, 30 percent of 112 teens polled disclosed that Jewish laws would not be a factor in their decision to get a tattoo (see survey results at right).

As a result, it becomes important that Jews reconcile how biblical laws apply to a society in which tattoos have become an artistic statement.

First, no sect of Judaism punishes for getting a tattoo. The popular notion that someone marked with a tattoo is unable to receive a burial place in a Jewish cemetery is a myth as confirmed by local rabbis from all sects.

“While we would not encourage tattoos,” Arnow said, “Jews with tattoos are and should be fully and completely welcomed and accepted in all aspects of Jewish life.”

While the lack of punishment is consistent, interpretations of the Torah’s tattoo laws vary slightly. The Mishnah, for example, implies that tattoos referred to in the Torah are those following a two-step process involving the actual perforation of the skin and the filling of the resulting puncture with ink. This creates a permanent mark, which is what the Torah is referring to. The idea that humans were created in the image of God is often used as an argument against tattoos.

“Modern Jews now connect the prohibition against tattoos with the Jewish concept of B’tzelem Elohim, being made in the image of God. We are creations of God and our bodies are exactly as they were meant to be,” Tasha Kaminsky, Kol Rinah Director of Youth Engagement, said. “Jews are encouraged to regard their bodies as precious loans from God. A tattoo is technically a self-inflicted permanent scar, something that runs counter to the notion of recognizing that we were made in a divine image.”

Despite the negativity directed at tattoos in the Bible, tattoos have taken on a different role in modern society, turning them into a meaningful cultural art form rather than an idolatrous practice. Lee Hankin, a student at Ladue Horton Watkins High School, understands the ethical conflict that Jewish teens must face when desiring a tattoo as she recently got one commemorating her late father who passed away after battling cancer.

“I thought about getting mine for over a year, then [spent] weeks actually picking out the design,” said Lee “And I went to the tattoo shop beforehand and got information and because I’m under 18 I had to get a document notarized [by a parent/guardian] to be able to.”

As Jewish teens contemplate their decisions, they weigh both the Jewish laws and traditions against current cultural expressionism and ultimately decide for themselves.

“I think you should think about it for such a long time before you do, we’re young and one day you want something the next you don’t,” Lee advises. “[But] I think if you like something enough to have it tattooed on your body, you should do it because obviously it means something to you, even if it doesn’t to someone else.”