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The Jewish Perception Of Tattoos: A Fair Prejudice?
Tue, 09/13/2011 - 20:00
Jewish Week Online Columnist
Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz
Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz

I recently spoke with young former gang members undergoing tattoo removal at Homeboy Industries, a job-training site in LA for at-risk and gang involved youth. Their tattoos serve as serious barriers to employment and acceptance into mainstream society. A Harris Poll taken in 2008 estimated that 14 percent of Americans now have tattoos and the Pew Research Center shows that a whopping 26% of those between 18-25 have at least one tattoo. Is the typical Jewish perception toward these individuals with body art fair?

Personally, I would never consider getting a tattoo. I found myself dismayed by another’s choice to scar his or her body with a lifelong design. However, somehow many of those with tattoos are often more scarred socially than physically. 
There is some perception by many Jews with tattoos that they are outcasts and that they can never even be buried in a Jewish cemetery. To be sure, the Torah does prohibit tattoos, called K’tovet Kaaka: "You shall not make gashes in your flesh for the dead, or incise any marks on yourselves: I am the Lord" (Leviticus 19:28). But this was a concern for idolatrous lettering and most modern tattoos are not a biblical, but only a later rabbinic, prohibition (Tosafot, Gittin 20b).
The Mishnah (Makkot 3:6) suggests that the prohibition is the writing of the name of a deity on one’s skin, and Maimonides writes, “This was a custom among the pagans who marked themselves for idolatry” (Laws of Idolatry 12:11). Aaron Demsky, a professor at Bar Ilan, even suggests that non-idolatrous tattooing may have been permitted in biblical times. Certainly if a tattoo was forced upon someone (as was done in the Holocaust and still happens in many gangs and during certain medical procedures), there would be no prohibition at all (Shulhan Arukh, Yoreh De'ah 180:2). Also, some Jewish legal authorities permit cosmetic tattooing when done for one’s self-respect (kavod habriot). Further, while there is a prohibition against getting a tattoo, there is no obligation to remove already-inscribed tattoos. There is no mention in the Rambam or Shulhan Aruch of a requirement of tattoo removal. The laser removal process is very expensive and painful, and it takes a long time. One cannot be blamed for not choosing this option.
Tattoos should be discouraged today, because the Jewish tradition holds that we were created in the image of God and that our bodies are on loan for this life of service. Therefore, we must take care to protect them. However, there is also a prohibition to block someone’s attempt to repent and grow (teshuva). Rambam writes, “Repentance atones for all sins, even someone who was wicked all his days and repents at the end; we don’t remind him of any part of his wicked past” (Laws of Repentance 1:3).
Many Jews today believe that they cannot be observant Jews or be buried in a Jewish cemetery because of a tattoo they got years earlier. This is not true.
Even more tragic is the struggle those who were lured into gangs, drugs, and tattooing have in trying to rebuild their lives. They don’t have to open their mouths – the stereotypes that come with a tattoo speak a million words. The tattoo may be an indication about the past. But it is not an indication of the future.
We can all strive to be more inclusive and less judgmental of those who are tattooed. As I learned at Homeboy Industries, this scar on the skin often represents a scar on the soul. Who are we to further deepen that pain?
Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Director of Jewish Life and the Senior Jewish Educator at the UCLA Hillel, and a 6th year doctoral student at Columbia University in Moral Psychology & Epistemology. Rav Shmuly’s book “Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century” will be released in early 2012.  
gangs, shulchan orach, tatoos

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"Neither the author nor the commenters have mentioned the abhorrence to tatoos in families of holocaust survivors who bear tatoos from the nazi camps." -- Of course they have terrible associations with tattoos, but why should I not get a tattoo? Should I not study German history because of the pain the Nazis inflicted on Jews (and gypsies, and gays, and many other minorities)? It's a terrible thing that so many millions of people were permanently marked by the Nazis, but that pain was not transferred to me, as aware of the Holocaust and its affects on the Jewish/affected people as I am.

Neither the author nor the commenters have mentioned the abhorrence to tatoos in families of holocaust survivors who bear tatoos from the nazi camps.

I absolutely have to weigh in on this one as I am a FULLY Tattooed Baal Teshuva who has spent plenty of time dealing with the prejudices that exist in the Frum world regarding Tattoos. Even though I know of one heavily tattooed Baal Teshuva who ended up becoming a Black hatter in Monsey. This Bochur ended up marrying a very Frum girl and has a wonderful frum family. Unfortunately ,That is the exception to the rule . I cannot begin to tell you how many dates I went on when I was in Yeshiva and how many of the young women that I dated seemed like promising prospects for a good shidduch until they saw my tattoos. Seriously, I can point to two times where after a number of wonderful Kosher dates that once my tattoos were exposed I was dropped like a bad habit. . Not that I'm belly aching but It's no secret that the frum world (particularly the Haredim), can be at times ,not all the time, synonymous with being small minded, bigoted ,and prejudiced. Whats even more troubling is that being heavily tattooed can gets in the way of your Tefillah as if you walk into the Satmar Beit Midrash in Williamsburg, or Shomer Shabbos in Borough park in the summer to catch a minyan and you happen to be wearing a short sleeved shirt , you inevitably get those looks of "well is he a Yid , a Goy ,or a Ger". Unfortunately, the same thing happens in the uppity Modern Orthodox shul's as well. Sadly, there have been times when really wonderful frum yidden have been mortified because some arrogant frummer than thou went out of their way to try and flame me about my ink in publi. Now one could ask ' Why set yourself up for it in the first place?...or Why don't you just wear long sleeves? The answer is.... Why should I have to ? So I can perpetuate peoples prejudices and small mindedness. When all of it is said and done I am an anomaly and a novelty in the Frum world Tattoos and Tzittzit :) :) :) ., Anyhow, if I stay in one place long enough people eventually come around, get to know me and realize I am a good neshama, that I have the pintel of the yid and on the inside I am a Hassid of the Rebbe(or at least I try to be) even though on the outside I look like a despicable Italian mafioso gang banging (I'm just being silly don't take me too seriously). Anyhow, I'm married now to a wonderful Jew with excellent Midot so it all worked out for the best By the way I haven't gotten tattooed since becoming a Baal teshuva and neither should you!!!!!


I too am a heavily tattooed Jew. I am not sure if you will ever see this post, but if you did, I would love to know more about your experience...mainly because I feel at many times completely stymied in my BT journey by my Tattoos. I would love to talk to someone who has made that journey, more successfully than I have.

email me at my user name, or post here...if you ever see this....

I appreciate generally the rabbi's call for greater sensitivity to others. That is never a bad thing. However, I don't think his argument flows logically, at least as presented. The rabbi states, "There is some perception by many Jews with tattoos that they are outcasts and that they can never even be buried in a Jewish cemetery." This perception may arise out of a misunderstanding of halacha, rather than, as the rabbi implies, that other Jews unfairly judge people with tattoos. In addressing unfair perceptions of people with tatoos, Rabbi Yanklowitz seems to himself be making judgments and generalizations of how others Jews react to people with tattoos. It strikes me as unfair.

That said, it's possible that the rabbi is really addressing, albeit subtly and cryptically, halachic decision-makers who make the wrong call about consequences for tattooed Jews, such as poseks who may wrongly bar people from being buried in a Jewish cemetery. If that is the rabbi's true intent behind this article (and I'm only guessing that it is), then I wish he would say so. I wish he would instead engage in a halachic discourse with those poseks, rather than imply that there is a larger Jewish problem of wrongful discrimination against people with tattoos.

There is another great company in SoCal that works with communities to eradicate gange & unwanted tattoos... great place for tattoo removal for everyone - in Costa Mesa & Corona. The owner (Jerry) has a great heart for helping others (does a lot of charity work). They also perform acne/acne-scar removal and hair removal upon request. Shalom.