For the last thirteen years, I’ve been an advisor to my Jewish friends, congregants, students and colleagues about their tattoos. This has been my version of “always a bridesmaid, never a bride.” You see, I’ve wanted a tattoo since I was a kid but like many of us, I was made to believe that Jews could not be buried in a Jewish cemetery if they had a tattoo, and even worse, that tattooing is essentially “not Jewish.” Thank G!DESS one of the most powerful, provocative, radical, healing, and transformative parts of SVARA is always treating statements like “that’s not Jewish”, or “not Jewish-enough” with a hella strong hermeneutic of suspicion.
Over the last few years there have been a number of fabulous articles and essays about the history of Jews and tattooing. Several prominent leaders across different Jewish movements have made it a point to publicly dispel the myth that one cannot be buried in a Jewish cemetery with a tattoo. In 2015, however, I felt alone and out on a limb when I wrote a teshuvah (a Jewish legal responsa) categorically demonstrating that Judaism does not have a catch-all ban on tattooing as the extant legal responsa of that time claimed (p.s.- if you’d like to read my as-unpublished teshuvah, email me at [email protected]). All this is to say that even though I had done the learning and was even recognized by a number of my peers as a trustworthy authority when it came to Jews and tattooing, why was it that I wasn’t confident enough to get one myself—until two weeks ago?
Well, it wouldn’t be SVARA if we didn’t begin with a piece of Talmud, would it? Well, that’s where my journey began too. In the Talmud Yerushalmi or The Jerusalem Talmud (which gets codified a bit before the Babylonian Talmud that we’re more familiar with at SVARA, and which most Jews around the world are more accustomed to studying), the Mishnah there focuses on the terms seritah (שריטה) and ketovet ka-akah (כתבת קעקע) which come from the Torah’s original language around what has been generally understood as tattooing:
:ושרט לנפש לא תתנו בבשרכם וכתבת קעקע לא תתנו בכם אני יהוה
“You shall not make gashes in your flesh for the dead, nor incise any marks on yourselves: I am the Lord.” (Leviticus 19:28)
The Mishnah in the Yerushalmi looks for the exact point at which the violation is committed:
“One who incises (השורט ha-soret) one incision (שריטה seritah) for the dead is culpable. If he incised one incision for five dead persons or made five incisions for the sake of one dead person, for each and every one he is culpable.” (JT Makkot 3:5)
“One who writes a writing (כתבת ketovet) and does not incise (קעקע ka-akay’ah) or who incises and does not write, that person is not culpable until the person both writes and incises with ink or with coal or any matter of thing that stains. Rabbi Shimon ben Yehuda in the name of Rabbi Simeon said ‘that person is not culpable until that person has written the Name of God, as it is written (Leviticus 19:28)- ‘You shall not make gashes in your flesh for the dead, nor incise any marks on yourselves: I am the Lord.’” (JT Makkot 3:6)
The Yerushalmi effectively creates two separate and distinct injunctions within the Levitical verse: a seritah is specifically an incision in connection with a dead person, whereas a ketovet ka-akah isn’t necessarily directly connected to the dead, but rather, is in connection with a prohibition of writing the Name of God directly on the body. At this point it appears that the rabbinic conception of the ban on tattooing is actually more expansive than the Biblical conception, although one could argue that the Yerushalmi doesn’t see a problem with writing on the body unless it includes “The Name of God.” These same teachings are then found in the Babylonian Talmud with some significant additions:
“One who incises (השורט ha-soret) an incision (שריטה seritah)- Our rabbis taught in a braitta- is one culpable for the injunction of incising even if the incision was done on account of his house that fell or his ship that sank at sea? The word ‘l’nefesh’ (לנפש “for a person”) comes to teach that he is not culpable unless it was on account of the dead alone. And from where do we learn that one who incises five incisions on account of one dead person is culpable for each and every one? The word ‘sarat’ (שרט “he incised”)- that he is culpable for each and every incision. Rabbi Yosi said ‘From where do we learn that one who incises one incision for five dead persons is culpable for each and every one? The word ‘l’nefesh’ לנפש comes to teach that he is culpable for each and every person’, but this word also comes to exclude (an incision done) for his house that fell or his ship that sank at sea, which is in according with the reasoning of Rabbi Yosi.” (BT Makkot 20b-21a)
The Babylonian Talmud adds a specific restriction to the notion of the seritah: if the incision is made on account of another tragedy (the specific examples being damages to property) it is not included in the prohibition. This Bavli addition yields further questions: 1) if one were to make an incision for a tragedy outside of physical property damages (for example- loss of a job, the end of a relationship, etc.) would that person also be excluded from culpability? and 2) since nothing has been explicitly stated thus far regarding incisions that are purely decorative (i.e.-symbols independent of any specific event), are such incisions excluded from the prohibition as well? The Babylonian Talmud offers another qualification of our Yerushalmi Mishnah, now of JT Makkot 3:6:
“One who writes a writing (כתבת ketovet) and does not incise (קעקע ka-akay’ah) or who incises and does not write, that person is not culpable until the person both writes and incises with ink or with coal or any matter of thing that stains. Rabbi Shimon ben Yehuda in the name of Rabbi Simeon said ‘that person is not culpable until that person has written the Name of God, as it is written (Leviticus 19:28)- ‘You shall not make gashes in your flesh for the dead, nor incise any marks on yourselves: I am the Lord.’ Rav Acha the son of Rava said to Rav Ashi: ‘Until that person has written- that is, “I am God” literally!’ Ravi Ashi said to him: ‘That is not in accordance with Bar Kappara who taught that one is not culpable until one has written the name of (a god of) idolatry, as it is said: “A written incision (ketovet ka-akah) you shall not make upon yourselves, I am the Lord”- I am the Lord, and not another.’” (BT Makkot 21a)
Rav Acha (the son of Rava) and Rav Ashi are not even in agreement on whether the problem is writing “I am the Lord” or, as Bar Kappara claimed, whether it was writing the name of another god! From these pieces of Talmud it seems clear that the restrictions on tattooing are quite narrow—one shouldn’t have a tattoo in connection with the dead (which could also yield some very broad-ranging interpretations) and one should, at the least, be quite cautious about putting the name of any deity on one’s body. Furthermore, a closer read of the root ש–ר–ט reveals that this was a method of violent scratching that was meant to mortify the body, which has little do with the high level of skill, artistic craft, and professional sanitation that is characteristic of most reputable tattoo studios and artists today. Badda bing, badda boom. I should’ve been right on my way to the parlour.
Studying these texts could make one feel justified in saying “Gamirna! גמירנא”—I’m well-learned in the foundational concepts. At SVARA, having that foundation is the first fundamental piece of being a Talmud “player” and really claiming our radically queer rabbinic tradition. The thing for me, though, was that I hadn’t really claimed the statement “Savirna! סבירנא”—I’m deeply in touch with and expressive of my intuition, my life-earned wisdom, which at SVARA is the living tree that blossoms from the foundational soil of our skill-building and learning. The big picture is that having a keen awareness of our own intuition, informed by our fundamental learning, is the inheritance that our queer rabbinic ancestors dreamed for us. Hence my issue was that I felt deeply steeped in the learning, but I hadn’t actually embodied and integrated my deepest feelings and desires about how and with what I wanted to forever mark my body with that learning.
I knew what the image was—when I was about 11 years old my father z”l showed me the movie “Yentl,” where Barbra Streisand plays the famous rebellious character imagined by Yiddish writer Isaac Bashevis Singer. Yentl, living in an early 20th century shtetl, dares to disguise herself as a man in order to study the thing she loves most—Talmud. The movie had a huge impact me—for one thing, it definitely informed my bisexual longing for someone along the spectrum of Yentl’s chevruta Mandy Patinkin and Yentl’s wife Amy Irving. (Looking back, I realize I didn’t have a shot at doing or being anything else other than a SVARA-nik, oy…) The thing about the film adaptation of Yentl that really captured me , though, was that Yentl isn’t ever really settled anywhere because she can’t be her full self. The fact of the matter is—if getting what you want means hiding a part of yourself, then you haven’t really gotten the thing, have you? While differing pretty dramatically from the Isaac Bashevis Singer story, Barbra Streisand’s Yentl concludes with her leaving her shtetl on a boat to an unknown destination looking for her “piece of sky.” As a queer person and as a person caught between two identities that have often led to two conflicting paths (being a rabbi and being an artist) and truthfully many pieces of my identity which often feel in conflict, Yentl’s journey to hide herself and discover herself resonated with me deeply. Hence the image I imagined for my tattoo was Yentl leaning seductively on her masechets of Talmud with the constellation of Capricorn (the hybrid goat-fish), my astrological sign, in the sky behind her.
Even with all the texts in my repertoire and the clear image in my mind, it wasn’t until I began a chevruta with SVARA-nik Loa Beckenstein during Fairy Hours that I was able to finally move towards getting my tattoo. Loa had dazzled me and their beit midrash-mates that previous zman (semester) with their heart-opening interpretations of our Talmud text, and their stunning visualized recitation in movement and ASL of our sugya. Loa and I had just begun what we were calling a “visual chevruta,” focusing on the prophetic artistry of the Jewish tradition and in our lives. I noticed that Loa had a number of stunning tattoos and I asked them about their experience with tattoos. Loa explained that they saw their body as a canvass and the artist performing the tattoo as someone with a sacred task. I shared with Loa how I had spent years researching tattooing and yet I was still dragging my feet on actually doing it. Loa encouraged me to really lean into finding the right artist, someone who’s spirit could really be a ‘chevruta’ for me. I had never thought of it that way before.
Because of Loa I was reminded that this wasn’t just about getting a tattoo—this was about being vulnerable, held, and supported in another person’s hands, while maintaining and communicating a vision very near and dear to me. Much like the experience of being in chevruta at SVARA. I found the amazing artist Laura Leonello (@lauraleonello) who not only watched the entirety of ‘Yentl’ as a reference point, but even asked me to send her my teshuvah! Loa reminded me that the core reason I have always known I wanted a tattoo is because I’ve wanted to mark my body as holy, a practice done across cultures (Judaism included, think circumcision) throughout history. As I laid there for nearly seven hours (a nice Jewish number, right?) I was reminded of another verse of Torah:
“One shall say: ‘I am the Lord’s’; and another shall call himself by the name of Jacob; and another shall inscribe (l’chtov) his hand to God, and he will connote himself according to the name of Israel.” (Isaiah 44:5)
We all have different ways of communicating our Judaism and our whole selves in this world. This tattoo, after 13 years, has been a piece of my way that has finally come into being. May the learning we do, from the Talmud itself and from our radically traditional queer yeshiva-mates, bring us to more fully lived selves and a world full of more realized holiness.