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.
Today, my friend Greg said that “somewhere deep down – no, just on the surface – I blame God too, not for causing tragedy, but for refusing to prevent it (regardless of whether or not God actually could prevent it). Sometimes I just need a deity at which to scream. And I think God is okay with that”. I don’t know what it was in response to – the earthquake that caused buildings down the east coast to shake, a personal crisis that is going on in Greg’s life, one of the many news stories that Greg is constantly posting on his facebook.
What I do know is that this quote, in its essence, sums up why I converted to Judaism. I don’t know whether God can prevent tragedy. I don’t know whether God causes tragedies (though I have my theories about both questions). What I do know is that sometimes I need to rail against God. I need to scream at God about the injustices of the world. I need to whine because my cut is infected and it hurts. It’s not my best theology – but crisis theology is rarely the theology we would espouse when we are calm and thinking logically. I need a deity who can take it as much as said deity can dish it out.
When I converted, I was asked to write about two figures from Torah whom I admired greatly. I think people thought I would choose Rachel, Ruth, Sarah, one of the great, strong matriarchs who lead the Israelites. My rabbis were surprised when I chose Abraham. I wrote about Sodom and Gomorrah, about Abraham standing before God arguing with him for the lives of people he barely knew. Of all the Torah stories, this is the one that pulled me.
See – the Torah writers knew. They knew that we need heroes who are human, who fail, who make mistakes, who lie cheat and steal. We need heroes who are going to stand up and hold God to account. After all, we are a covenant people and we can demand that God lives up to God’s end of that bargain. We need a deity that can take the barrage of our emotions – from joy to anger to denial and back again. Torah is filled with heroes who show us that God can take it – Job, Abraham, Isaac (the great wrestler), the writers of Lamentations and the Psalms. These are the writers who show us that God can take what we can dish out, regardless of whether God deserves it.
It’s part of what it means to be a Jew – this arguing with God. It’s not all of it, but it’s there. We are expected to question, to doubt, to argue with God. Good theology or bad, crisis theology or the theology of our every day lives – God can take it. So let it out – rage against the injutices of the world. Whine when you hurt yourself. Argue with God about the tragedies that surround us. God can take it.
Just keep in mind…
I chose David dancing like a fool for God as my second Torah figure.
I’ve been watching True Blood and I’ve been thinking about Yom Kippur, which is coming up soon, and I’ve decided I’ve found a solution to all of my forgiveness needs.
I’m just going to forget everything. I’ll find some nice person willing to hit me with a baseball bat, or an anvil, or whatever it would take to erase the horrible things I have done in the past year. It will save me the time of writing all of those letters to people I have hurt; it will save me the guilt of remembering all the (un)intentional ways in which I have damaged God, the earth, other people, and the non-human children of God.
Good Lord, don’t we all wish sometimes it could work that way.
For those of you who don’t watch True Blood, here’s the basic deal: a Big Very Bad Vampire has lost his memory. Suddenly, he doesn’t remember all of the Very Bad things he has done. He is now sweet and loving and kind and would never intentionally hurt anyone. The girl of his dreams, to whom he had been extraordinarily cruel, now forgives him for every thing he ever did to her and falls madly in love. It’s brilliant – and I wish the world could work this way – especially as Yom Kippur approaches and I am faced with atoning for all of the harm I have done in the past year.
But has she forgiven him? Can she forgive him?
Judaism teaches that one must go to the person harmed in order to seek forgiveness. God can only forgive sins against God, while sins against humanity are left in our hands. We must seek out those whom we have harmed and repent.
Can we do this if we don’t remember? Memory-loss vampire can’t go to anyone and honestly repent because he doesn’t know what he has done. His apologies are, at best, honest but generic. He has no way to feel remorse, because he doesn’t know what he is remorseful of.
I admit – I want it. I want a clean slate. I want to forget the tears I have caused. I want to forget the horrible things I have said to people. I want to forget the less intentional harms – the times I have not listened as I should have, the times I have been more concerned about my well-being than that of others. I am (sometimes) jealous of the memory loss of the Vampire. He has the easy road.
Yom Kippur is a hard road. It is about guilt and repentance and brokenness. But it has something that the vampire will never have. It has grace, healing, community and love. At the end of the hard road, at the end of the tears and apologies and pain… there is honesty and the forgiveness that can only come from truly repenting what you have done. There is a cathartic cleansing that can only come from awareness of where the dark spots in your soul are. At the end of the hard road is the Book of Life, a community healed, and relationships repaired. At the end, we are kinder, more compassionate, more human because we have faced our darkness.
And we have a clean slate…
which means I can start biting people again.
After all, there’s always next Yom Kippur.
Recently I’ve been playing a lot of video games – it’s the best way to avoid the scariness of Ph.D. applications. So far, I’ve worked my way through Halo, Resident Evil, Dante’s Inferno, Constantine, and Blood Rayne. I love these games. The graphics are amazing, the stories are amusing, and I’ve done some of my most fun theological musings while playing them. See, all of these games have basically the same theme:
Kill the monsters!
Whether they be devils, demons, aliens or zombies, these games pit the heroic (mostly) human against some form of evil monster bent on destroying the world. It’s a fascinating theological problem.
What do we do with the monsters?
Torah gives us several different viewpoints. In Job we find Behemoth and the Leviathan as glorious monsters who reveal the aweful glory of God. These are the monsters of Halo and Resident Evil, the monsters who frighten us, who kill us, who bring about the end time promises of the prophets. Torah is a textbook on the creation of these huge and frightening monsters. One only needs to read some of the Psalms or a bit of Isaiah to see the creation of these terrifying beasts.
However, Torah is hardly universal in its treatment of monsters. Psalm 104 gives us a different view of both God and the monsters. Here we see a childlike God who frolics in the waters with the Leviathan. Every time I read it, I picture God with a giant beach ball playing with the Loch Ness monster. Hardly the frightening Leviathan who brings chaos to the world in other parts of the Torah.
I have to admit to liking the second view of monsters better. I want to sympathize with them. I want a video game where I am the monster, and not the one being violent. I want a game where monsters and humans get along. Idealistic and silly I know, but every time I play these games, I have to wonder: to whom do the monsters pray at night?
Maybe we can learn from the Leviathan of Psalm 104. Devils, demons, monsters, aliens – Judaism allows us to see these are the beloved children of God, no less than we are. Perhaps, if we cannot begin with loving each other, we can begin with loving the monsters. We can work to see them as children of God and work from there. It seems as though we find it easier, after all, to love the monsters than it is to love those with whom we disagree on political, religious, or personal lines. If love is a practice that must be learned and worked towards (which I believe it is), then perhaps loving the monsters is where we should begin.
After all, I’m pretty sure they say the same bedtime prayers as I do.