Saturday, January 8, 2011
You shall not make any gashes in your flesh for the dead
or tattoo any marks upon you: I am the Lord.
Since the Bible is a “living text” it is appropriate to consider contemporary impacts of the law on modern believers and visa/versa. I’ll question and consider, “What is God’s divine and practical purpose for human skin? As someone who has a tattoo, does this mean that I am forever condemned to be unclean? How do modern Jews view tattooing?”
Since God gave humans skin, we can assume that His purpose for flesh is indeed to cover and protect the inner essence of human anatomy and physiology. In addition, I contend that skin symbolizes a spiritual protection. Wikipedia defines the integumentary system’s functions to, “waterproof, cushion, and protect the deeper tissues, excrete wastes, and regulate temperature, and is the attachment site for sensory receptors to detect pain, sensation, pressure, and temperature.” Not only is it our first line of natural defense, but it is also the main way humans distinguish one another and perceive the outside world. Anyone who’s treated a burn victim will tell you that infection and dehydration are life-threatening concerns. Someone recovering from third degree burns can think of little else beyond the pain they experience. Furthermore, anyone who bears major scars can explain the impact the marks have on their self-identity and how others relate to him/her. My focus in highlighting the importance of skin is to emphasize that by disfiguring the skin, an individual is tainting one of God’s basic and important means of protection, identification, and perception.
The laws of Leviticus and Deuteronomy describe what it is to be clean/righteous or unclean/unrighteous. Throughout the text the importance of being physically clean, spiritually righteous and socially responsible intermingle without any particular order of importance. In part this lack of hierarchical ranking is due to the Hebrews not separating body, mind, and spirit. It was the Greek philosophers who conceptualized the distinctions between the physical and moral self. Dennis Bratcher elaborates, “the whole di- or tri-chotomous idea is not a very good conceptual category for talking about God’s work with human beings. Even though it was used extensively in the Early Church and has been popularized in some circles today, it is not a category used in Scripture. That simply says that it is not a category that reflects how the ancient Israelites, or even by and large NT writers, conceptualized human beings.” Keeping the Hebrews concept of the spirit and natural world being inextricably interrelated, reading the Torah doesn’t seem so haphazard. In short, the holiness of the spirit is manifested in the external, physical body.
If humans are made in the image of a Holy, Perfect God—then in order to enter His presence or remain among His chosen people one should be as whole as possible. Furthermore, the New Testament also elaborates on the physical/spiritual connection, “…your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20). Therefore, Hebrews needed to study, discern, and apply His commandments to their daily lives.
The first part of the verse “gashes in your flesh for the dead” can be interpreted as a ban against marring the flesh as a sign of morning. It was common for the Hebrews to rent their clothing as a sign of despair or grief as in Genesis 37:29, “When Reuben returned to the pit and saw that Joseph was not in the pit, he tore his clothes.” Thereby, one could conclude that ripping flesh would be the ultimate show of anguish. Kidshealth.org warns parents that self-mutilation among American teenagers has become alarmingly common. They explain the reasons why someone would mutilate this or her skin, “Cutting is a way some people try to cope with the pain of strong emotions, intense pressure, or upsetting relationship problems. They may be dealing with feelings that seem too difficult to bear, or bad situations they think can't change.” Returning to the idea that unblemished equates with righteousness, it is understandable that God would not approve of intentionally scarring the skin. Not only is the individual at risk for pathogens by literally making the flesh incomplete; but also, he or she is forever marred/blemished. Once again, consider the conclusion Mary Douglas reaches that the common threads throughout the laws are completeness, order and whole-ness.
Moreover, skin is a means of identification—genetic attributes distinguish one as an individual as well as being a member of a family, clan, and race. Since the word HOLY means to set apart, the Jews needed to distinguish themselves from the heathen. Deuteronomy 10:12-18 illustrates this principle, “So now, O Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you? Only to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments of the Lord your God and his decrees that I am commanding you today, for your own well-being. …the Lord set his heart in love on your ancestors alone and chose you, their descendants after them, out of all the peoples, as it is today.” Therefore, an essential part of being “the chosen people” was to look different and not assimilate with the surrounding cultures.
In the ancient world marking the skin indicated a rite of passage, as a talisman/amulet, or a part of ritual worship. For example, Africans used scarification to symbolize the sexual transitions of puberty or childbirth, “Scars added at puberty, after the birth of the first child, or following the end of breastfeeding highlight the bravery of women in enduring the pain of childbirth. Scars on the hips and buttocks, on the other hand, both visually and tactually accentuate the erotic and sensual aspects of these parts of the female body” (The Vanishing Tattoo). For modern Westerners the connection between skin and eroticism has been “numbed” by literal and figurative overexposure. Many world-wide cultures encourage piercings and various markings as erotic expression. Japanese prostitutes and geisha were among the first modern-day females to use ornate tattoos to lure the attraction of passing men. Ironically, most American youth view tattooing positively as rebellious and overtly sexual. Role models of the tattooed vixen are Kat VonD, Pamela Anderson, and Angelina Jolie.
Religious Tattoos’ website argues, “In verse 28, God is warning the Jewish people about a pagan practice at funerals, where pagans would mutilate/mark themselves to appease their false gods. The pagans hoped that by cutting themselves and marking images/symbols of idols on their bodies, that they would obtain favour in the afterlife from their false gods, both for themselves and for those who just died.”
Since other tribes who were in close proximity to the Israelites wore tattoos, this would be a means to distinguish them physically and prohibit a pagan worship ritual. Moreover, Tattooing was a means for “branding” a slave, soldier or criminal to deter escape. The Online Tattoo Museum illustrates that “Tattooing was only associated with barbarians in early Greek and Roman times. The Greeks learned tattooing from the Persians, and used it to mark slaves and criminals so they could be identified if they tried to escape. The Romans in turn adopted the practice from the Greeks, and in late antiquity when the Roman army consisted largely of mercenaries; they also were tattooed so that deserters could be identified…The Latin word for ‘tattoo’ was stigma, and the original meaning is reflected in modern dictionaries…’a prick with a pointed instrument’, ‘a distinguishing mark cut into the flesh of a slave or a criminal’, and ‘a mark of disgrace or reproach.”’ Consequently, someone bearing a skin marking could easily be assumed to be a non-Jew, and therefore, “stigmatized” as heathen, slave, a Roman mercenary, or foreign.
The Jewish history section of this website emphasizes tattooing’s negative connotation for modern Jews, “During the first quarter of the 20th century, European Jews rarely tattooed their bodies. Many felt that is was against their religion and beliefs to mark their skin and this made the holocaust tattooing an even greater atrocity that would haunt survivors for the rest of their lives.” Thus, tattooing is considered to be a mark of a curse, enslavement, and/or genocide by many Jews.
Contrastingly, other’s view it as a badge of honor. Holocaust survivor Charles Winter explains, “He says some survivors get their tattoo removed, but his number is a source of strength. ‘I'm proud of it,’ he says. ‘I'm proud to be a Jewish boy that survived"’ (theage.com.au). In short, there is no quick and easy answer as to how the Jewish people as a whole view marking the body.
In Modern times, religious sects still use conservative dress as a sign of modesty and physical purity. I was raised in the Pentacost tradition and was discouraged from wearing make-up, piercing my ears, and wearing pants. As a teenager, I played softball in a skirt with a pair of shorts underneath to avoid any accidental exposure. Similarly, other cultures promote the covering of skin, especially of females. The Islamic hijab requires that “the entire body must be covered, although the face and hands may be exposed. Some women choose to cover themselves further by means of a face veil and gloves, and this is perfectly fine” (Cook). Similarly, modern Israeli dress is casual but conservative. Israel Made Easy advise tourists, “Dress code for religious sites means no shorts, bare midriffs, or sleeves shorter than T-shirt-length. Men cover their heads in Jewish shrines and synagogues, bare them in churches.” Therefore, it is common in Israel to see scarves, hats, long pants, skirts and long sleeved shirts in the desert heat.
As far as tattooing as it is viewed by modern Jews, Rabbi Jeffrey Goldwasser summarizes many of the online discussions when answering a young man who is considering getting a tattoo (and whether or not he would be permitted Jewish burial), “What would you gain by having a permanent tattoo placed on your body? It will not make you a better person. If you imagine that it would make you feel better about yourself, you may have issues about your self-image that no tattoo will solve. It's worth asking tough questions like these before making a choice as a young person that you will carry with you for the rest of your life” (About.com). Typical of the Jewish tradition, he answers a question with a question. Furthermore, some scholars argue that tattooing oneself for YHWH does have Biblical precedence using Exodus 9 and 16, “Moses borrowed tattooing from the Arabs who tattooed magical symbols on their hands and foreheads. According to Thomson, the prohibition in Leviticus referred only to heathen tattooing which related to idols and superstition, and not to ‘Moses-approved’ tattooing” (The Vanishing Tattoo). In reading Rabbi Goldwasser’s response, it seems very clear to me that Jewish people are in general conservative about most issues; however, they honor individual choice and that each of us must walk out our own path with God.
Retrieved from http://www.theage.com.au/news/World/Im-a-proud-Jewish-boy-that-
Bratcher, Dennis. Body and Soul: Greek and Hebraic Tensions in Scripture. Thoughts on the Di-/Trichotomous Debate. The
CRI/Voice, Institute. January 10, 2010. Retrieved from http://www.crivoice.org/bodysoul.html
Cook, Selma. The Islamic Garden. Hijab Basics: The Requirements of the Muslim Women's Dress. Retrieved from
Douglas, Mary. The Abominations of Leviticus. Retrieved from http://prophetess.lstc.edu/~rklein/Documents/douglas.htm
Ed. Michael D. Coogan et al. The New Oxford Annotated Bible. New Revised Standard Version, with the Apocrypha.
3rd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.
Fodor’s. Israel Made Easy. August 10, 2007Retrieved from http://www.fodors.com/news/story_2117.html
Goldwasser, Rabbi Jeffrey Wolfson. If I get a tattoo, can I still be buried in a Jewish cemetery? Retrieved from
Retrieved from http://kidshealth.org/teen/your_mind/mental_health/cutting.html#
The Vanishing Tattoo. Online Tattoo Museum. Retrieved from
Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Integumentary_system