Are Tattoos Taboo?

Are Tattoos Taboo?

There’s no shortage of Jewish Atlantans willing to share the circumstances of their ‘body art.’ Still, traditional rabbis hark back to the Torah’s prohibition of marking the body.

After 35 years with the Atlanta newspapers, Marcia currently serves as Retail VP for the Buckhead Business Association, where she delivers news and trends (laced with a little gossip).

The back tattoo of David Eisenberg, a Sandy Springs native now living in Israel, pays homage to Israel: a Star of David, crossed swords with olive branches all intertwined.
The back tattoo of David Eisenberg, a Sandy Springs native now living in Israel, pays homage to Israel: a Star of David, crossed swords with olive branches all intertwined.

Atlanta Rabbi Hillel Norry makes a clear point about the taboo tattoo. “Pierce your ear. Color your hair. Put on makeup. All of those can be removed. As traditionally understood, tattoos are prohibited by the Torah. Tradition and practice have affirmed the prohibition. The myth about burial in a cemetery shows that earlier generations took the prohibition seriously to discourage people who might want a tattoo. Like most of those things, it didn’t work.”

The interim rabbi of a Conservative Chattanooga synagogue, Norry likens the body to a temporary loan in order to give the spirit a “place” in this consciousness to experience the lessons, pleasures and challenges of being an embodied spirit. “Tattooing, because it’s permanent, is like painting racing stripes on a rental car. The owner might not like it. No other person is master of our body, but God the Creator. Our bodies, even with all of their tsores [troubles] are holy. Balanced against the ostensible ‘personal expression’ that tattoos allow, the holiness considerations, to me, are much more compelling.”

Atlanta Jewish Academy graduate David Eisenberg, who served in the Israel Defense Forces, said, “Tattoos are a part of Israeli culture, especially in the high-tech world. Kids to grandmas walk around with no shame. When I got stopped by Chasids to wrap tefillin, they ask its significance and love my meaningful stories (although I’m sure they still don’t LOVE it.)”

Eisenberg secured his engineering degree at Georgia Tech before making aliyah. His tattoos have deep symbolism: a Star of David, crossed swords with olive branches intertwined in a culmination of Zionism. It represents his joining the IDF to “defend the homeland.” Near his heart is a hamsa, “Strength, Faith, Hope” in Hebrew.

On his arm is a memorial to a family friend “23 Love 10 Life 11.” He explained, “This has strong significance because it helped me survive darker moments in the army (Lone Soldier suicide is a big problem). Just by looking at the message kept me sane.”

Mollie Pett is looking to refresh and expand the Rhodesian Glider tattoo she did 13 years ago at age 18.

Mollie Pett got her first tattoo freshman year at Georgia Tech. She wanted something unique to represent her personality. “My bird is a creation from Mom’s ’70s shirt, the Rhodesian Glider, symbolizing my freedom, liberation and navigation of life’s next path. It took about four hours and hurt like hell. I had to take a break halfway through to have a snack because I got lightheaded! Now 13 years later, the colors are fading, and I’m considering an artistic restoration.” Keeping the bird intact, she wants new art to represent the next stage in her evolving life.

Jason Feldman has a magnolia flower and a triangular symbol of the words Atlanta. He wants more and will look for life significance down the road.

Jason Feldman, a graduate of AJA and The Weber School, has a wrist magnolia flower and symbol of Atlanta letters. It took over an hour but hurt more than he expected. He wants more and will look for life significance down the road. In terms of his Jewish education, he said, “I saw a lot of kids getting tattoos, but the parents didn’t want them.”

Relating to youngsters, Rabbi Jordan Ottenstein of Congregation Dor Tamid teaches a confirmation class of 12. He leads discussion on our bodies being sacred vessels and how to make holy choices along with organ donation, drinking and drugs, sex and sexuality, as well as piercings and tattoos. He said, “We explore traditional biblical and rabbinic texts and modern responses from the different movements as to how they can make a Jewish choice of whether or not to get a tattoo/piercing and what criteria should go into their decision-making process.”

Atlanta Rabbi Chaim Listfield, who serves part-time at a Conservative congregation in Huntsville, Ala., is mystified why tattooing is so popular. “I just don’t get it. G-d owns our bodies to care for until we give them back. The Talmud has a debate as to why it’s a problem versus being specifically forbidden in the Torah. That debate stems from biblical times, where tattooing was linked to tangible pagan idol worship.”

Rabbi Eliyahu Schusterman of Chabad Intown offered, “The Torah’s prohibition against tattoos is clear, Leviticus 19:28: “’You shall not etch a tattoo on yourselves.’ I’m not qualified to comment why people choose to tattoo. I assume it’s like other forms of self-expression. I’ve never had the desire. I like the body G-d has given me the way it is. I prefer to focus on G-d-given gifts to find expression from within.”

Lynn Chanin has the initials of her son Benjamin, BJC, on the inside of her left wrist.

Mother Lynn Chanin lost her son Benjamin Jarred, who had turned 16 in 2010. She recalled, “Most of it is a devastating blur, however I remember my daughter had a tattoo in Benjamin’s honor on her wrist done after shiva. Without hesitation I echoed my desire for the same thing. I now have his initials BJC on the inside of my left wrist, on my heartbeat.”

Removal? Plastic surgeons and dermatologists are places to start. Premier Image Cosmetic & Laser Surgery’s website promotes advanced lasers. Anesthesia is an option. They want non-smoking patients.

Others not necessarily medically supervised, such as Removery, which advertise on the web. Dr. Ink Eraser posts charges ranging from $75 to $200 per session for removal.

Listfield concludes, “I don’t see any deficiency in a person who has tattoos removed. No downside at all. I wouldn’t call the person ‘defiled’ in the first place. I rarely want to say about anything that ‘it’s too late.’ I can’t imagine that a human body is compromised if a person had ink pressed into them, but later had it expunged.”ì

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