Body Piercing, Tatoos and the Image of God

Sermon given April 24, 1998, by Rabbi Barry H. Block

Tonight’s sermon begins with a confession: I have a pierced ear. Actually, I only wore an earring in that hole for five months, fifteen years ago, but my ear lobes are so fat that the hole never fully closed. My earring days came to an abrupt end when I was told to remove it if I wished to serve on the staff of our U.A.H.C. Greene Family Camp. Loui Dobin, Director of the Camp then as now, felt that an earring-wearing male would not project the appropriate image for the Camp. My, how times have changed.

Not only boys with earrings, but multiple body piercings on young people of both sexes, have become quite commonplace. Some parents don’t like this phenomenon, but most have decided not to object too strenuously. If a young person is a good student, a careful driver, and one who avoids alcohol and illegal drugs, parents may well be wise to overlook a few unusual holes in a teenager’s body. After all, even if the hole doesn’t close, as mine hasn’t, it’s hardly noticeable once the jewelry is removed. And, by the way, Loui Dobin no longer asks his male staff to remove their earrings!

Attitudes have indeed changed with the times in our own day. You may be interested to know, though, that ear piercing is not exclusively a contemporary phenomenon. It was known even in Biblical and Talmudic times. In the Torah, a pierced ear is the sign of a slave who had earned freedom but chose to remain enslaved. The Talmud tells of various Jewish artisans who wore earrings to indicate the specific nature of their trades. The rabbis make no negative comment about those ancient examples of widespread piercing.

Not long ago, therefore, the Law Committee of the Conservative Rabbinical Assembly issued a permissive ruling with regard to body piercing. Although their ruling applies specifically to Conservative Jews, it is informative to us as well. If body piercing was acceptable to the rabbis of the Talmud, we have no Jewish cause to object.

There are, however, two exceptions. Judaism prohibits body piercings that interfere with personal hygiene, and can therefore threaten our health. We are not permitted to imperil our good health for the benefits of fashion. Piercing of the genitals is also prohibited, both on hygienic grounds and because of the Jewish value of tzniut, modesty. Our tradition teaches us to treat our private parts as just that, private. Only in our most intimate relationships, and to obtain necessary health care, are we permitted to expose ourselves. Out of respect for those parts of our bodies most directly involved with the highest of human acts, the creation of a new generation of life, we must not treat our genitals as display cases for jewels.

Despite my confession of past ear-piercing, I have no corresponding personal history with tattoos. I’m not sure whether I was wiser, or just a little older, by the time tattooing become as commonplace as it is among young people today.

I first thought of tattooing as a Jewish issue when I received a curious call from a young person I did not know. Her mother had told her that a person with tattoos could not be buried in a Jewish cemetery. She asked me if it was true. Frankly, the mother’s claim sounded to me like a fabrication of the I. C. J. P., you know, the International Conspiracy of Jewish Parents. I reassured the young woman that bodies are not inspected for tattoos prior to interment in Jewish cemeteries. I also cautioned her to think very carefully before getting a tattoo. Such a permanent change ought not be made on a whim. I did not sufficiently consider that Judaism might seriously take a position on tattoos.

As it happens, the International Conspiracy of Jewish Parents has a point. There is a rabbinic text prohibiting the burial of bodies with tattoos, though it is very rarely enforced. Laws of this nature have often been interpreted as applying only to tattoos that are downright idolatrous.

Nevertheless, the Conservative Rabbis’ Law Committee prohibits tattoos more broadly, and perhaps we should, too.

Human beings are created in the image of God. Most of us believe that God’s image is manifest in our souls, not our bodies. Moreover, if we accept the claims of science, our bodies are the present-day result of millions of years of evolution. If we are faithful, though, we view even evolution as the will of God, and we look upon our bodies as the tangible, outer manifestation of God’s image within us. No matter how well considered, a tattoo is the result of a short-term decision to decorate the body forever. What hubris to imagine that any of us, as individuals, can improve artistically on the original design of the Lord, on the work of millions of years of evolution according to God’s plan.

The same Conservative Rabbis who ruled that Jews should not get tattoos, also insisted that no disabilities be enforced upon those who choose to disregard that prohibition. The rights and privileges of being a Jew — the honor of reading from the Torah, of kindling Sabbath light, and even of burial in the cemetery — are frequently accorded to Jews who ignore one Jewish law or another. A person who has a tattoo should be treated as no less worthy than one who doesn’t always observe the Sabbath or fast on Yom Kippur. Though we take all of these requirements seriously, we do not turn away Jews who do not follow every one. We certainly do not reject a young Jew whose most serious crime is a silly tattoo.

In the end, we manifest God’s gift of creating us in the Divine Image through our actions, not primarily through any aspect of our physical appearance.

We bring out God’s image when we visit the sick, as God comforted Abraham after the patriarch’s circumcision.

We manifest God’s image when we feed the hungry, as God nourished the ancient Israelites in the desert with manna.

We exemplify God’s image when we teach Judaism to our children, just as God taught the Torah to our people in its infancy.

We honor the Divine Image when we strive to be holy, for no reason other than the example of God, Who is holy.

Most body piercing may be permitted and tattoos prohibited. May neither act detract us from our primary duty to God. With every fiber of our being, with each work of our hands, may we always manifest the Divine Image of God implanted in us and in all human beings.