An urban legend claims that someone with a tattoo cannot be buried in a Jewish cemetery. I don’t know the source of this incorrect myth but Jewish mothers for decades have successfully used it to prevent their teenage sons/daughter’s from getting tattoos. Even though it won’t disqualify a corpse from burial in the Jewish cemetery, it is important to note that the Torah forbids it.
You shall not place a cut for the dead in your flesh, and a tattoo you shall not place upon yourselves. I am G-d. (19:28)
If the Torah wanted to simply instruct against needlessly cutting our skin or getting a tattoo, it should have said something like “do not cut or tattoo yourself.” This is the unambiguous language the Torah usually employs when prohibiting something. However, from the irregular wording of above verse the emphasis seems to be that one should not “place” a cut or tattoo. In both cases, the prohibition is “placing.” It appears that it is not the cutting or tattooing per se, it is having that cut or tattoo remain in place as a statement to the rest of the world. Let’s switch topic for a moment and discuss the general concept of cutting oneself.
Anyone who has been to a traditional Jewish funeral or shiva home knows that tearing a garment is a Jewish sign of mourning. What if one chooses to perform a more severe mourning ritual; rather than tearing his garment, he wants to tear-cut-his skin. The verse above prohibits it however, if tearing a garment is appropriate, why can’t one cut his or her flesh as a sign of mourning? Our clothes are physically the closest things to our own bodies. When we lose a dear relative, we acknowledge that our personal world has sustained a breach; its ‘material’ has been torn. Its wholeness has been agitated and there is an emotional jagged edge where it previously came together seamlessly. Tearing the clothes metaphorically expresses the mourner’s feelings.
Such a statement of loss is both poetic and appropriate. The Torah teaches, however, that it becomes excessive when we apply it to our bodies. When one cuts his or her personal self, s/he conveys the idea that it is not just our personal worlds that have become darkened and insufficient, but our very lives. Wearing that cut upon ourselves expresses the thought that the passing of someone dear to us leaves us forever lacking and incomplete.
This is almost sacrilegious. G-d is not arbitrary. Each person has his or her place, function, and unique value to Him. The death of one individual should not lead to despair and lethargy in a survivor. To the contrary, belief in a G-d Who is purposeful and deliberate demands that we understand the loss of any human being as a loss to the world – and therefore demands that we who live on must work harder to compensate for the loss, rather than default to gloom and depression.
The Talmud (Makkot 21a) sees an organic relationship between lacerating oneself as a sign of mourning and doing so as an idolatrous devotion, such as the priests of Baal (I Kings 18:28) did. (“They gashed themselves as was their practice with swords and spears.”) This opens the possibility that one of the Torah’s objectives in prohibiting the mourning-cut is to firmly oppose the pagan world’s attitude towards death. Ancient idolaters saw Death as an independent power that delighted in draining life from the living. Human beings were essentially powerless in all their interactions with the gods. Human success or failure in dealing with them was contingent on winning their favor by appeasing them. You won their approval or at least their benign tolerance by paying homage to them. When a survivor contemplated the death of someone close to him, his best form of protection was to acknowledge the terrible power of Death by paying tribute to it. The self-mutilation was that tribute; through it, a person hoped to avoid the same fate.
The Torah, of course, knows of no independent power of death that seeks to quash life. The Torah knows of no independent power outside of G-d, period. Both life and death owe equally to the Almighty and to nothing else. As hard as it may be for creatures of flesh and blood to emotionally comprehend, life and its opposite both flow from the goodness of the One G-d who celebrates life and love. It follows that sacrificing a life – or even a small fraction of one – in recognition of the death of another can never pay homage to G-d. To the contrary, any statement of profound, irrevocable loss borders on blasphemy. The same G-d who decreed the death of one person decreed that the survivors remain alive. Life means that He has expectation invested in us. To deny that we remain capable of living fully is nothing less than a repudiation of Him and His plans for us!
The tattooing prohibition also highlights the difference between idolatrous belief and the true faith. The Talmud’s discussion makes it clear that the starting point of the prohibition is etching into one’s skin the name of another deity. Here, too, the Torah speaks in terms of placing the mark on oneself, rather than the act of tattooing. Placing such a name on one’s flesh is a sign of subservience and devotion. This part of the prohibition is intuitive but the majority opinion in the Talmud holds that the Torah extends its prohibition to apply equally to all inscriptions. It would, therefore, follow that tattooing Name of G-d on one’s flesh is equally prohibited! What could be objectionable about a person displaying his devotion to his Creator by proudly dedicating his very body to His service?
Here is another example of the refreshing and uniquely Jewish point of view. In other faiths, people make a decision to join the faith-group and devote their energies to its goals. Until you make that decision, you are an outsider. Torah Judaism does not see our service of G-d as a matter of preference or choice. Human beings are obligated in His service because they are created in His image. They need no other reminder of their obligation. Any external sign etched on to the body created in His image gives the false impression that entering into His service is a matter of choice, rather than inherent in the human condition.
Both prohibitions -cutting the flesh and tattooing-are similar. Each begins with a rejection of the mistaken notions of paganism, but ultimately goes well beyond that. They lead to recognition of the proper relationship we maintain with G-d, far removed from the debased subservience to dark forces that remain part of contemporary life, centuries after the old gods disappeared from Western consciousness.
Jews know that as hard as a loss is, one needs to continue living. After WWII Jews didn’t withdraw, they created a State as well as many Jewish schools in America and Europe to insure that the Jewish legacy would continue. As individuals, people who have suffered the loss of a loved one try to continue that person’s legacy or memory by setting up or donating to an organization that is devoted to preventing the cause that took their loved one’s life. Jews don’t cut flesh or tattoo, we understand that we must find the hope and strength to continue through.
(Sources : Hirsch Chumash, Vayikra 19:28; Ritva, Makkos 21a s.v. Rebbi Shimon. Note: One might ask, isn’t circumcision a sign to remind a Jew of his subservience? See the Hirsch Chumash commentary to Bereishit/Genesis, where Rav Hirsch makes the case that circumcision is more than that, and therefore does not contradict the thesis developed here.)