The Jewish Perception Of Tattoos: A Fair Prejudice?


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.