Parashat Acharei Mot-Kedoshim, Leviticus 16:1 - 20:27
This week's parasha is sponsored by Jeanette Grosman to honour a unique and special friendship - in memory of Lieba Sharon Lesk. May her memory be a blessing.
What's the big deal about marking your skin?
Madonna's consists of the Hebrew letters lamed aleph vav which represents one of God's mystical names. David Beckham's is a verse from the Song of Songs. For those in the limelight Hebrew letter tattoos may be the latest fad once the Chinese character tattoos got boring. For members of the tribe it is a different story. Baseball player Gabe Kapler sports one that reads "never again." For young Jews it is apparently a new form of self-expression and pride. Why wear a Magen David (Star of David) necklace when you can actually have it permanently inked on your skin? In Israel, members of certain army unit have their own tattoo design.
Andy Abrams, a filmmaker, has spent five years making a documentary called “Tattoo Jew.” In his interviews with dozens of Jews with body art, he’s noticed the prevalence of Jewish-themed tattoos — from Stars of David to elaborate Holocaust memorials, surprising since one reason Jewish culture opposes tattoos is that Jews were involuntarily marked in concentration camps.
Mr. Abrams has even seen tattoos that crack jokes, like the one on the back of Ari Bacharach’s neck: the word “Kosher” above a pig, an ironic statement about identity. “The people I interviewed are trying to express their Judaism, or connect with God or their Jewish roots,” said Mr. Abrams, 38, who lives in Los Angeles and calls himself a nonpracticing Orthodox Jew. “They’re taking this prohibited act and using it to feel more Jewish.”Skin Deep: For Some Jews, It Only Sounds Like 'Taboo', Kate Torgovnik,New York Times, July 17, 2008
Ouch! The single verse about tattooing is found in Kedoshim, one of the two portions read this week: You shall not make gashes in your flesh for the dead, or incise any marks on yourselves: I am the Lord. (Leviticus 19:28)
What's the big deal about marking your skin? One explanation relates to the latter part of the verse: I am the Lord. (Leviticus 19:28) Go back to the Mishnah (Makkot 3:6) and it is the permanent nature of the marking that is forbidden. Well, not quite, says Rabbi Shimon ben Yehuda: Writing God's name makes it a forbidden act. Hear that Madonna?
There is also the view that the prohibition was related to mourning customs of surrounding cultures. The prohibition is preceded by another no-no: You shall not round off the side-growth on your head, or destroy the side-growth of your beard. Skip ahead to next week's parashah and you will come across the same two prohibitions regarding priests in mourning: None shall defile himself for any [dead] person among his kin… They shall not shave smooth any part of their heads, or cut the side-growth of their beards, or make gashes in their flesh. They shall be holy to their God and not profane the name of their God…(Leviticus 21:1, 5-6)
Another explanation is that this prohibition was a way of setting us aside from other cultures where individuals tattooed their deity's name. Are you listening Madonna? This according to numerous commentators ranging from the 12th century scholar Maimonides (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Idolatry 12:11) to the modern scholar W. Gunther Plaut (The Torah: A Modern Commentary, p. 802).
A funny thing about this verse is that the Hebrew khetovet ka'aka (incised mark) is a term found only in this one place in the Bible. (I prefer the Everett Fox translation writing of skin etching.) The verb for writing kh-t-v, used in a way to mean "incise" can be found in Exodus 32:15, Deuteronomy 9:10 and 10:2. In these places it is used to describe God's writing of the Commandments. On some level the prohibition may be that certain types of markings should only be left to God.
Is it just a generational difference that separates liberal Jews who shun tattoos from those who adore them? My colleague Rabbi Yael Splansky recently observed that the growing fashion of extreme tattoos is a reflection of something lacking in secular society. Perhaps people are permanently marking themselves because memory and identity are missing. For young Jews who get tattoos it seems to be a proud acknowledgment of who they are.
I've had my share of conversations with Jews who look forward to celebrating reaching the age of majority in secular society not with a drink but with a permanent mark. Which is better –a favorite hockey team logo or a chai?
According to Vayikra (Leviticus) that's not your decision. It isn't even a valid question. In modern society we view the body as a personal possession. In Judaism, the body is a divine creation which must be treated with respect. One rabbinic term even describes the human body as olam katan, a microcosm of the universe. In Leviticus the sanctity of the body is maintained in numerous ways. One way is by what you put into it (kashrut). Another is the concern and proper follow-up for what comes out if it, be it a fluid discharge, whether normal or abnormal, or a skin condition, all of which were detailed in last week's portions.
In Judaism, respecting the physical body means any body –living or dead. It means not desecrating it. Yes kids, this means branding, tattooing and most piercings are out. Don't be so smug mom and dad, we're also talking about elective cosmetic surgery and injecting things into yourself that make you look "younger."
Basically, while we are each a microcosm of the universe we are not the center of the universe. Yes I know, Hillel did say: "If I am not for myself who will be for me?" (Avot 1:14) Hey, someone out there liked that question so much that it has been permanently inked on their body. (I will NOT provide the url for that!) Let's not forget part two of Hillel's saying: If I am only for myself, what am I? We all want to make a mark but Judaism teaches that the mark we leave is not one we etch on our skin. Rather, we strive to inscribe marks on the heart and soul of others. How do we do that? That's what Kedoshim is all about: ethical behaviour towards one and all. We take the commandments God incised on the tablets and through our actions we incise them on others. The opportunity to do this exists at all times. Which brings us to Hillel, part three –If not now when?
Rabbi Michal Shekel