Letter to Zach
In 2 days, I’ll be serving as Gabbai Aleph at your Bar Mitzvah, Zach: i.e., I’ll be in charge of calling 7 different groups of folks up to the Torah to witness the reading of Kedoshim, the “Holiness Code” of Leviticus. I know that you know what this portion says (after all, you’ve been studying it for months) — you’ll be holy for I, YHWH your God, am holy. And here are your set of instructions. Don’t engage in sorcery. Don’t eat fruit from young trees before the 5th year. Don’t follow the death-cults of Molech. Don’t prostitute your daughters.
Don’t make any gashes in your skin for the dead or excise marks on yourself: I am YHWH.
Zach, you know me well enough to appreciate the irony of the situation. There I’ll be, a tattooed grandmother (and your friend), standing at the reader’s table making sure the Hebrew is pronounced correctly, while someone chants that holiness is not equal to gashes & marks on the skin.
Not only do I hope that you find this humorous, but I also hope that you’re open to seeing this juxtaposition as just another way of “doing” Torah, of engaging with the central text of our tribe and finding meaning in it for your 13- and 23- and (God willing, eventually) 53-year old self. I’ve got a few thoughts for you as your Jewish journey unfolds over the days & years ahead.
1. From a Jewish perspective, a tattoo (which may or may not be what the passage is referring to; see #2) is no better or worse than other mitzvot with which you will wrestle. Will you keep kosher? How much? Will you observe Shabbat and in what ways? Will you explore other religious traditions in your quest for knowledge? Will you bear grudges, free slaves, treat men and women differently? Every day there are a dozen ways in which you can measure yourself against the Torah & your own best notions of what it means to live a holy, whole, and ethical life. Enjoy those opportunities and use them to figure out what’s truly important.
2. There is more than one way to see almost everything in the Torah. We are taught that the white spaces are as crucial as the black letters, for in those white spaces we add our own voices to the generations before us. In those white spaces we wrestle with the text just as Jacob wrestled with the angel. Traditional commentators have conjectured that this section of verses may be about living differently than the Canaanite “pagans” whose land we were about to settle. They manufactured idols, carved their flesh in mourning rituals, and engaged in sexual practices best left unmentioned.
Rabbi Rochelle Kamins, a 21st century rabbi, translates the Hebrew as follows:
A cut to the soul do not put into your flesh and this written imprint do not put on yourselves: I am YHWH.
Rabbi Kamins (who, BTW, has a tattoo herself) has written a beautiful explanation of why she believes that the prohibition in Torah was not against all markings, but specifically against the marking of God’s unknowable name. Check it out (after the party).
3. You can, by the way, have a tattoo and still be buried in a Jewish cemetery.
4. Be aware of how your actions impact others. There are many in the Jewish community who are uncomfortable with tattoos because of our experience during the Holocaust. (There are some people who specifically get Holocaust-themed tattoos.) Should you make your decision based on other people’s opinion of what is acceptable? That’s a slippery slope and I don’t normally recommend it — but I do recommend sensitivity in any decision you make. That, and awareness that not everyone is gonna love you all of the time for what you think and do.
5. Tell your Mom that I don’t think anyone should get a tattoo before they’re 25 (and even then, it should be discrete & small; you don’t want it coming back to haunt you later). Getting inked should (oooh, there’s that word again) not be done lightly. It’s an important and permanent addition to your life: choose wisely.
That’s it for now. Know that I’m always there for talking Torah or anything else.