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.