Yes, I am a Jew with a tattoo. And no, Jews do not traditionally get tattoos. (Although the practice has become so common that the New York Times published an article about it a couple of years ago.)
Leviticus 19:28 states that “You shall not make gashes in your flesh for the dead, or incise any marks on yourselves: I am the Lord.” Scholars over the years have suggested that this prohibition was an attempt to separate Jews from other ancient religions that used tattoos, and that we should not permanently mark our bodies, which were created b’tzelem Elokim (in the image of God). I know all of this, and yet I don’t regret my tattoo.
I’m not a halachic Jew, and I neither pretend nor aspire to be one. I drive on Shabbat. My Rabbi is a woman. I think gay and lesbian Jews should have the same rights and opportunities as other Jews. Sometimes I even wear linen and wool together–you know, just for funsies. But I digress.
That I have a tattoo is not of concern to me. The question is, how will I explain it to my daughters? I guess I could go with the good old “Do what I say, not what I do” but quite frankly, that’s just lame. I could point to my tattoo as yet a terrible outcome of being raised in a secular home, except I don’t believe it. I don’t see my tattoo as a relic of a problematic childhood or misspent youth.
I can attribute many of my life choices to my values and beliefs. I can tell my daughters that we don’t eat pork or shellfish because observing kashrut brings Judaism into our lives every day as we choose our meals. I can explain that I use the phone on Shabbat because keeping in touch with family and friends who live far away is a greater mitzvah to me than not using technology on the Sabbath.
But how do I explain the tattoo, such a blatant violation of Jewish law?
I guess I’ll have to be honest. I just wanted it. I think tattoos are cool. And hot. (My favorite tattooed Jew is Ami James, of Miami Ink fame.) My sunshine is particularly meaningful to me. It’s based on the Zia symbol, which is most commonly found on the New Mexico state flag. I was born in Santa Fe, and I feel a strong connection to my birthplace. My sunshine, however, is a six-pointed star, which I find interesting given that I got my tattoo long before Judaism became an important part of my life.
Judaism acknowledges the importance of beauty in our lives. The enhancement of ritual objects is known as hiddur mitzvah, and while I know the Rabbis weren’t talking about tattoos, I think mine is beautiful. Sometimes we do things just because we want to, or because we think they make the world, or ourselves, a little prettier. I don’t need to explain those ideas to my daughters–they don’t need help remembering such basic truths that we grown-ups can so easily lose sight of. And I’m ok if my daughters decide to get a tattoo. When they’re 40 years old and have already gotten their doctorates, found their life partners, and given me at least three grandchildren each.