Thursday, March 18, 2010

Uncle Why Explains Taboos, er, I mean Tattoos

Note - This post is a continuation of my earlier post, Uncle Why leaves the Jews "Open to Interpretation". I recommend that you read that post before reading this one.

Well, boys and girls it really is time to answer one of your Jews questions. This one comes from Charel somewhere in Queensland down under.
--Hi Charel ---
Charel writes:

Dear Uncle Why,

I am recently converted and I read somewhere where a person claims that the prohibition against tattoos is "open to interpretation". So, if someone believes completely in the 13 Principles of Faith, but would still like to get a tatoo - where do they fall?

Thanks, Charel. In this case, I must tell you Charel, that they fall just about a low as they can go. And let me explain Why.

With relation to the "family of Man" as a whole, the Jews have been singled out. And we have been singled out for one purpose: to be a ממלכת כהנים וגוי קדוש - to be a "kingdom of priests and a sacred nation". This means that we must be role models of dignity and decency and a bit more disciplined than the average James. And it means more than anything else that we must distance ourselves from a whole list of practices that the Torah considers to be morally decadent.

For this purpose, the Torah designated a special parsha in sefer Vayikra to spell out for us what the kedusha of being Jewish is all about and exactly what are the decadent practices that we must eschew. The pasha is named "Parshat Kedoshim" and it begins by commanding us that we must be a Holy people (even though we heard this already).

And why?

Because HKBH is Holy. And our job is to show the world to what degree a Human being can become like Him (B"H).

As a result, Kedoshim Tihiyu becomes the definition of what being a גוי קדוש is and, by extention, the definition of what being Jewish is. Conversely, one who transgresses on Kedoshim Tihiyu is not acting "like a Jew".

So now let us discuss one mitzvah that is listed in Kedoshim Tihiyu (Vayikra 19:28): the prohibition against "embedded writing in the flesh" a.k.a. tattoos.

As I indicated, the mere positioning of this prohibition is Parshat Kedoshim tells us much about it. The Torah considers it a decadent practice. The Rambam - yes, the one quoted in the chapter, places the laws of this prohibition in Hilchos Avoda Zara (12:11). And he tells us as such: 

וזה היה מנהג העכו"ם שרושמין עצמן לעבודת כוכבים כלומר שהוא עבד מכור לה ומורשם לעבודתה

And this was the practice of the idol worshippers that would mark themselves for idolatry to proclaim that this person has sold himself to it and is marked for its service.

Though this may be what "triggered" the prohibition, the Torah does not limit the prohibition as applicable exclusively when done in the service of idolatry. All tattoos are forbidden. So, although engraving a tattoo may not be actual worship (and thus does not incur the death penalty), it is cast as an idolotrous practice. Incidentally, if it is done as an actual idolotrous ritual, it does indeed incur the death penalty as that is the law by all rituals that are recognized as components of a specific form of foreign worship.

Beyond the direct association to idolatry, there it has a more "secular" standing as "chukos hagoyim" or "darkei emori". Thus, the Shulchan Aruch lists this transgression in the following sequence:
Laws of idol worship > laws of usury (Ribbis) > laws of Chukos Hagoyim > laws of witchcraft and sorcery > laws of incisions and tattoos.

In addition to this, one the the disciplines of Kedusha is to acknowledge that we cannot just decorate our bodies any way we like.

Many people who engrave tattoos, especially highly visible ones, will say that they are "making a statement". No doubt. From our perspective this is the statement that he (or she) is making:

  • I have no regard for the laws of G-d's Torah

  • I believe that my body is mine to do with it what I please

  • I have not detached myself from Chukos Hagoyim

And he/she is making this loud statement 24/7/365/120.

Because, unlike other Dark-ei Emori that last until the sun comes up, a tattoo doesn't heal or wear away. It sticks around!

Now, most Jews from traditional Jewish families don't even think much about all of this. This is because in Jewish culture, we are basically raised looking upon tattoos as something repulsive and un-Jewish. For the vast majority, it does not even strike us as a temptation. And if a born Jew willingly engraves a tattoo on his body, it is seen as a blatant rebellion.

Now it seems that for those from non-Jewish cultures who seek to join us, there is something very alluring about a tattoo. And this can be quite dangerous. Because when somebody endeavors to join the Jewish people one of the most essential aspects is to demonstrate that he has left his attachment to Chukos Hagoyim at the door. To not do so serves to undermine one's total commitment.

So my advice to you, Charel, is that even if you admire tattoos you must make sure to admire them from a distance. As far away as you can get. And it is not a good idea to give credence to any soul so lost that they can consider a practice that is so clearly rooted in paganism and so starkly repulsed in our tradition to be "open to interpretation". Because as long as the clearly stated and codified laws of the Torah can be considered "open to interpretation", the status of one who sees the Torah this way can also be considered "open to interpretation".

1 comment:

joshwaxman said...

"Though this may be what "triggered" the prohibition, the Torah does not limit the prohibition as applicable exclusively when done in the service of idolatry."

the rama, though, might consider it only an issur derabbanan when not done for idolatrous purposes.

and if one merely allows the tattoo to be inscribed on his body but is not mesayeya, according to rambam and shulchan aruch it might also not be a violation deorayta.

that doesn't mean that one should do it, of course...