On the Doorposts of My House

On the Doorposts of My House


Tattooed Jew

posted by Malachi Kosanovich

This week I got a new tattoo. This isn’t a new experience for me – I count my tattoos into the thirties and have not gone more than six months without getting one in a long long time. That said, getting a new tattoo is always a struggle between what I need and what Torah tells me.

I’m not going to lie or candy-coat it. Leviticus is pretty clear on the subject: “You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh, for the dead, neither shall you make in yourselves any figures or marks: I am the Lord” (19:28). While I am not a biblical literalist, there is no way to just throw this verse out and not think about it before getting a tattoo. Add to that memories of survivors of the Shoah, and images of numbers tattooed on frail abused arms. The weight of Torah and cultural memory are strongly against tattooed Jews.

And yet there are more and more of us – there are rabbis who tattoo to mark their ordination experiences. There are atheist Jews who mark themselves in solidarity with Israel. There are conservative Jews with the words of the Shema tattooed on their arms. There are grandchildren of survivors of the Shoah who tattoo their social security numbers in memory of their families.

How do we begin to weigh the importance of the words of Torah? How do we begin to make judgments about which laws we must follow and which we can negotiate around?

I’m not sure that I can answer either of those questions. Here’s what I can say: One by one, day after day, I weigh the words. I make the choices. I argue and negotiate and listen to Torah to hear what it tells us. I weigh the words against my conscience.

My rabbi and I talked about it once – the tattooing – and here is what we came up with.  G…d gave me this one body, and a chance to live in it, honestly and fully.  If, we believe, G…d really had a problem with the tattooing, God would let me know.  It would be in the gut feeling that people get when they are unsure of a decision they are making; it would be the nauseous, pit of the stomach feeling that you get when you know that what you are doing isn’t right.

I never have those feelings about my body.

 G…d doesn’t mind.

I tattoo because I need to remember.

I tattoo because I need to heal.

I tattoo because I need to be beautiful, and not beautiful, at the same time.

I tattoo because I need to control my body, even if that control is an illusion.

I tattoo so that my body is what I want it to be, not what others think it should be.

God gave us this one life, this one body, to live into fully and honestly.  The weight of Torah law is there to help us do that, not stop us, not restrict us. So we negotiate, we study and attempt to understand… and when all else fails, we listen to our instinct. For some of us, maybe, that is how God speaks.



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Malachi Kosanovich

posted November 30, 2011 at 9:28 pm


I guess I would say that the answer is not to “ignore” anything, but to struggle with it continually. I realize that there might be a time when I come to believe that G…d does sincerely have a problem with my tattooing and at that time I will stop. Each and every time I tattoo I go through the same struggle with the text. It is a living text and should be treated accordingly. And yes, many people say that G…d let me know in Leviticus that there is a problem with my tattooing. I honor their reading of the text and encourage them not to tattoo. However, I believe that G…d speaks differently to each and every one of us as we struggle with the text.



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Michael in Minnesota

posted November 28, 2011 at 5:07 pm


As a Reform Jew, I support choice; that is what we are about, after all. And while I choose not to tatoo, the post makes me reflect on two things:

1) Where is the line (not that this is it) between what is ‘okay’ to ignore and what isn’t? A Jew who does not keep a kosher home- still a Jew? A male child born of Jewish parents who didn’t want a Bris- still a Jew? It is interesting to ponder the line.

2) Some might say that there is an answer to your statement, “If, we believe, G…d really had a problem with the tattooing, God would let me know.” Some will say that He has already said…in Leviticus.



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Howard Fleischman

posted November 28, 2011 at 3:59 pm


Beautifuly stated and thought out.
I truly believe that it is what we are in our hearts and minds, not what is on the outside that our Lord God sees, and understands about us, and how we treat and love those who we come in connect with.



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Malachi Kosanovich

posted August 29, 2011 at 7:05 pm


Dixon — I cannot possibly tell you how much your comment means to me. Thank you.



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Dixon Taylor

posted August 29, 2011 at 5:17 pm


I am a recently confirmed Jew. I have one
tiny tattoo from my younger days in the Navy.
When I went for my Bet Dhin, I was afraid it
would come up, but it didn’t. My new syna-
gogue accepted me just as I was. My rabbi ttold me I am the same as she, a deserving
Jew. But your writings have made me feel a
lot better about a faux pas from my misspent
Christian youth. Thank-you.
Dixon



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Chava

posted August 29, 2011 at 12:18 pm


Like in Leviticus, I think as long as you are not tattooing of someone who has died (at the time) and it’s for something significant, I don’t see a problem with it. But what I have noticed, depending on your line of work, it shouldn’t be visible to cause notice.



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algae

posted August 29, 2011 at 2:14 am


As someone who has worked in addictions counseling, I would like BYoung to expand on their comment and try to support that statement. I feel like you are making a lot of assumptions, not only about the author of this blog but of “all other addicts.” Choosing to explore and publicly write about personal experiences with a cultural taboo shows a lot of strength and insight, so where is yours?



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B Young

posted August 28, 2011 at 10:58 pm


You sound like all other addicts, you make excuses to justify what you know is wrong,



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