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Jews & Tattoos: What's a Rabbi to Do?

by Hillel News | Jan 22, 2007 |

A tattooed Jew.
A Jewish college student with a tattoo.

To hear Adam Sundheim tell it, his chance meeting with Chasidic reggae star, Matisyahu, was the heart-pounding opportunity he had been waiting for.

"He came out backstage after his show," explains the University of Central Florida junior. "And I showed it to him."

The "it" was a tattoo of the singer, the "size of a CD cover" complete with three Hebrew words inked onto Sundheim's back.

As Matisyahu nodded his appreciation, he asked his fan a simple question: "Do you know the Jewish law about tattoos?"

And while Sundheim, the grandson of a rabbi, conceded he did know about the Jewish prohibition against tattoos, he explained to Matisyahu that the tattoo was significant to his "personal relationship with Hashem (God)."

Sundheim is not the only Jewish college student to express his Jewish identity with a tattoo. Although no statistics are available for Jewish college students, the American Academy of Dermatology states that tattoos are more common today than ever before. A 2003 Harris poll found that 16 percent of adults had at least one tattoo.

When Jewish students consider a tattoo, they often turn to their Hillel rabbi for advice. "Usually students approach the subject [of getting a tattoo] by asking: 'Is it true that…' or 'My mother said…'" says Rabbi Barton Lee at Arizona State University Hillel.

For most students, they want some clarification of their parents' most powerful warning: "You can't be buried in a Jewish cemetery if you have a tattoo."

"Their folks aren't going to like this, but they're wrong," says Lee.

The news was a relief for Rachel Lazerwitz who went to see her rabbi to find out about the "can't be buried in a Jewish cemetery thing" after an initial consultation with a local tattoo artist about a Jewish star tattoo for her ankle.

And while the rabbi told her tattooing was still not permissible by Jewish law, her eventual burial would not be problem. But for the Webster University senior, it gave her pause.

"It did actually feel sort of weird. I don't want to get God mad," she said. "I had to think about [getting a tattoo] some more."

"As a Hillel rabbi and as an Orthodox Jew my role is to interact with the students where they are," says Rabbi Avi Orlow of St. Louis Hillel. For some students that may even mean spelling and drawing a Hebrew word for their tattoo, he says.

When talking to students about their questions on tattooing, Rabbi Shalom Bochner of Santa Cruz Hillel stresses the importance of "recognizing that they are their own person and put their concerns in a human context."

"The students know it's a Jewish taboo, but they don't know why," says Orlow.

To answer these questions and help dispel myths, some Hillel rabbis have held classes and learning sessions. Rabbi Lee held a Shabbat evening class on the issue of "Whose Body is it?" and Rabbi David Levy at Colgate University and Hamilton College Hillel, facilitated a Sukkot learning session entitled, "Jews, Booze and Tattooing."

"I wanted to help dispel the rumors. When students are 19, being buried is not their biggest concern," says Levy. "Instead I ask them 'when you're 80 will you still want to have that tattoo?'"

And regret is perhaps a more plausible concern for today's college student with tattoos.

Justin Levine a "Jew with quite a few tattoos" openly admits that he regrets two Chinese letters he had tattooed on his hips shortly after his 18th birthday.

"They were a fad," says the University of Central Florida senior. "I might even cover them up."

Or not. And time will tell if he feels the same way about another tattoo along his side. The four ink-black Hebrew words translate to read: "Follow your heart."

"It's important for students to know what our Jewish traditions are and then they can make an informed decision," says Bochner. "In general, Judaism has more flexibility than people think."

For more details on the traditional Jewish approach to tattoos:
Tattoos: Hip. Cool. Artsy. Permanent. Kosher?

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