Thursday, January 6, 2011

Jews and Tattoos


Question of the Week:


I am considering getting a tattoo. A very small one, but a tattoo none the less. It is a very meaningful one for me, and is even quite spiritual. I don't believe I am disrespecting my body by putting it there, quite the opposite. I also see my body as being transient and impermanent, and ultimately will be recycled back into the earth, while my "soul" will live on in some fashion. With this kind of logic, a tattoo on the skin doesn't seem so terrible. I however must first deal with the Jewish guilt aspect. Is getting a tattoo a sin, or just not recommended? What should I be considering before making this decision?




I think it is a great idea to decorate your body with spiritual art. There's nothing more beautiful than being covered head to toe with meaningful adornments. But not a tattoo.


Tattooing is clearly prohibited by the Torah. "You shall not place a tattoo on yourself, I am the Lord" (Lev. 19:28). The body is not ours to deface. It is loaned to us in order to fulfil our mission. Indeed, a part of this mission is to decorate our body, not with physical paint from a tattoo parlour, but with a spiritual imprint from our soul.


The soul didn't come down into this world for itself. Rather, the soul came down for the body's sake - to elevate and refine the body. We are sent into this world to transform darkness into light, to take an unG-dly universe and make it into a home for G-d, and to take our untamed and animalistic body and align it with G-d's will. For the soul to be holy is no big deal - after all, it is a soul, it always was holy, it is spiritual already. But for a body to become holy - that is an amazing achievement. And that's our mission.


This is why the Torah speaks little about heaven or other worlds, and focuses on this life in this world. And that's why the mitzvos of the Torah are all physical - put on Tefillin, light Shabbos candles, eat Kosher, blow a Shofar, put up a Mezuzah. Even prayer and study are done with our physical minds and physical mouths. We are here to elevate the material, not escape it. We are here to make this world holy, not run away to some world that is holy already. We are here to refine our body, along with its physical urges and course character traits; not belittle the body and focus on our soul which is holy anyway.


For this reason, the body should not be taken lightly. It is a sanctuary, a temple, a holy home for the soul. The Kabbalah even says that in the future we will understand that body is really higher than soul. The soul is a ray of G-d's light; the body is a reflection of G-d's very essence.


At the end of our lives we are expected to return our body to its Maker, not in the same form we got it, but rather as a refined work of art. This is not achieved with dyes and needles, but with the hard work of changing negative personality traits, conquering bad habits, sensitising ourselves to others, subduing evil urges, training ourselves to do good and becoming in tuned with our divine purpose. There is no quick or easy path to do this. It is the work of a lifetime. And that's what we are here to do.


Think it all through very carefully. A tattoo is something irreversible. You will have to live with it forever. What may seem like a good idea now may seem quite stupid down the track. It may be hard to explain to your grandparents, and even harder to explain to your grandchildren. I have met too many people who regret getting tattoos because they didn't understand the seriousness of it at the time. What is meaningful to you now may change. The Torah doesn't. 


I believe your desire to get a tattoo is coming from a pure place within you. So I recommend you get a different type of tattoo. Tattoo your body with mitzvos, cover it with holiness, decorate it with true spirituality. To do so is a decision you will never regret.


Good Shabbos,

Rabbi Moss


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