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Ask the Rabbi: Can I Convert If I Have Tattoos?

By October 16, 2009

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It has been a while since I shared an "Ask the Rabbi" post, so this week the series returns with a question about tattoos and converting to Judaism with a Reform Rabbi. Rabbi Marc Disick answers below:

Q. I have been speaking with a close friend recently, reading books and learning about Judaism.  I am interested in converting but I have many tattoos and would love to get more.  All of my tattoos have beautiful meanings of peace and family, as well as the tattoos I have planned for the future.  I'm worried that having as many tattoos as I do would be looked down upon by others of the Jewish faith, and I don't want the tattoos to be a  reason that I'm not accepted by others.  What do you think about this situation?

A: Becoming a Jew represents a major change for any adult.  First and foremost, I strongly recommend that you undertake the serious study of Judaism in a well established forum so that your decision to convert can be made from a larger and deeper context.  Reform Judaism does in fact offer Introduction to Judaism courses around the country precisely for people in your situation, see www.urj.org.

Now let me address your specific question.  Judaism regards the body and its form as sacred gifts.  For the most part, Judaism regards tattoos as an alteration of God's handiwork.  Yet many with tattoos see the artwork on their skin as an adornment of the human form with absolutely no disrespect meant to the Creator.

So here's what I suggest: While you are considering conversion, put a moratorium on your plans for new tattoos.  If your journey takes you through to conversion you may (or may not) think differently about getting additional tattoos.

What will Jews think about a Jewish person with tattoos?  I have absolutely no doubt that your tattoos will raise a few Jewish eyebrows.  So what.  We Jews have learned to accept women as rabbis, gays as cantors, and lesbians as synagogue presidents.  Ours is a faith which learns and relearns our responsibility to broaden attitudes which too often shut out folks who may not "be like us," whatever that may mean at a given moment.

But let's be real.  Folks with tattoos get tattoos not only for their eyes but for the eyes of others. Art very naturally attracts an audience.  And people always have opinions about art, especially when it's permanently embedded with dye under the skin of its owner.  If you convert I can guarantee you that you'll meet Jews and non-Jews with negative opinions about your tattoos.  But in fairness, that's a risk you assumed with each and every tattoo.  Like it or not, tattoos are fair game,

As for me, lots of people in my life have tattoos, some beautiful, some not so much.  Quite frankly, after a while I stop noticing the tattoos because they meld into my visual impression of the total person.

So in short, study Judaism seriously and see where it takes you.  If a Jewish person gives you some lip about your tattoos after you convert tell them the following:  The tattoos hidden by my clothing are far better than the ones you can see, but I learned in my conversion class that, regrettably, as much as I would like to, revealing them to you in the synagogue right now would give the rabbi a heart attack.

Shalom,
Rabbi Marc Disick

Comments
October 17, 2009 at 1:40 pm
(1) Yonatan says:

Tattoos are a sign of someone who has lived under a different paradigm from the Jewish one. But repentance from such practices is possible. It seems as if the person asking is yet enthralled by the thought of continuing this practice of using the body as an advertisement for his art, messages, etc. This is a non-Jewish concept, and alien to our ethos.

But in this generation, many people accept that there are “returnees” to the Jewish ethos. So one can see people at the public mikveh who have some tattoos, and no one says anything to them.

The Torah forbids tattoos on the skin. But some of our people have fallen into the practices of the nations.

October 19, 2009 at 1:28 pm
(2) Amelia says:

That wasn’t even an answer. You probably should not do it, but if you do, who cares??? Being a Jew is hard enough without making excuses for someone who outright chooses to do something forbidden just because. We might as well just say well, if you want to believe in Jesus, we don’t really do that, but if you want to, so what, you can still be a Jew… The answer is, no matter how lovely you think your tattoos are, they are not accepted in the Jewish religion. Don’t bother to convert if you are going to make up your own rules and ignore the laws of Judaism.

October 19, 2009 at 4:46 pm
(3) Iris Rosenberg-Cooper says:

My sister who is Jewish has a small tattoo but now is sorry for she heard that she cannot be buried (I hope she lives a long time) in a Jewish Cemetery.

Please advise. Thank you.

Iris – Big Sis

October 19, 2009 at 7:37 pm
(4) Donald says:

As you wrote Rabbi, “So what. We Jews have learned to accept women as rabbis, gays as cantors, and lesbians as synagogue presidents. Ours is a faith which learns and relearns our responsibility to broaden attitudes which too often shut out folks who may not “be like us,” whatever that may mean at a given moment.” Rabbi, with all due respect, are you speaking for all Jews? If you are, when do you plan to replace that 3,000 plus year-old Torah with an updated version? Be well.

October 20, 2009 at 1:51 am
(5) ShawnPatrick says:

Ask yourself one simple question…. Do we have the right to dilute the words of G_d?

October 20, 2009 at 4:14 am
(6) Godswill says:

Honestly speaking, I can see there is no safe heaven in worshiping the almighty God who did so wonderfully well for His chosen nation Israel. I am so hurt with your statement, I dont know what to refer you as. I was planning to ask on the road to converting from christainity to Jewdism becouse of so many deciet and misplacements.You so much have made my day worse; Just read your statment agian and please tell me it is a mistake. “So what. We Jews have learned to accept women as rabbis, gays as cantors, and lesbians as synagogue presidents. Ours is a faith which learns and relearns our responsibility to broaden attitudes which too often shut out folks who may not “be like us,” whatever that may mean at a given moment.”

October 20, 2009 at 1:44 pm
(7) Aliza G says:

This is what I tell the kids in my 6th grade religiosu school class when we dicuss death – and veer off on the subject of being buried in a Jewish cemetery if you have tattoos:
Many holocaust survivors had tattoos and they were not banned from Jewish cemeteries. I then told them that I looked to see where it was written in Jewish halacha that it is forbidden to have tattoos and could not find it anywhere.

October 20, 2009 at 1:47 pm
(8) Aliza G says:

Oh, and by the way – I have three small, tasteful tattoos. And again, I teach religious school.
I also tell my kids (as well as my own daughter) that reform judaism is about making your own choices.
Does someone Jewish who doesn’t practice Judaism make them better than me because they don’t have tattoos?

October 20, 2009 at 2:16 pm
(9) Naomi says:

I can’t believe some of the comments posted in response to Rabbi Disick’s answer – why, by the way, I loved. Whether or not some people want to believe it, Judaism HAS changed over the centuries and many congregations warmly welcome gays, lesbians and bisexuals as members of their community. That does not fly in the face of the Torah, it reflects how Judaism is able to adapt to the changing world. Do we still stone the unruly child, as commanded in Leviticus? No! And if that can be changed to reflect modern attitudes I don’t see why the same can’t be said of someone who is gay or who has tattoos, but still loves the Jewish faith. Yes, even if they want to get more tattoos in the future.

October 20, 2009 at 3:36 pm
(10) Yonatan says:

I believe that poster number 2 is not correct in judging my post. We are not talking here with someone who is asking whether or not he ought to make a tattoo on his body.

The rabbi discouraged him and so did I from making further tattoos until he studies further.

However, he already has tattoos, and they can not be erased easily, if at all. He is stuck with them until he dies. So for me to make him feel any embarrassment or shame – in my understanding of Yahdut- is a forbidden thing. The Torah condemns such behavior – to humiliate someone publicly – and it is considered as serious an offense as murder itself.

October 27, 2009 at 1:02 pm
(11) Yonatan says:

Dear G-dswill:

She is referring to Liberal Jews, aka Reform Jews, and is not mentioning the orthodox views of these subjects, which predominate in Israel. Orthodox Jews do not have female rabbis, or gay rabbis, and they know that homosexual behavior is forbidden even among Gentiles, what to speak of Jews.

But we do not have a universally accepted Sanhedrin in this generation with full legal authority to impose the death penalty. We do the best we can under the bitter circumstances of the exile conditions that we yet live in.

One day, our “judges as at first” will return, and we pray for that daily. One day we will not have evil or ignorance in the world, and all war between human beings will cease. “Swords will be beaten into plowshares” will arrive in its due time, even if we have passed the generation where literal swords are yet used for warfare.

Deliverance will come when we all least expect it, when every last hope except the Creator has been exhausted, and when all hearts turn in repentance to their Maker.

September 20, 2010 at 5:30 pm
(12) Yaakov says:

I know my comment is a year after the fact, but I could not help myself. First let me say, I am not a secular or “Reform” Jew. I am “Orthodox”. So I don’t believe that women can be Rabbis. I don’t believe that homosexuality is okay or that practicing homosexuals should have any position in the Shul, just as I don’t think someone in a sexual relationship outside of marriage should either. I don’t believe driving a car on Shabbat is okay. I do believe that the words of our Torah were those of HaShem and not of man. I also believe in the Torah Sheb’al Peh (Oral Law).

Having said all that I have to say I am surprised at the misinformation being given in many of the above comments . Having tattoos will not prevent you from being buried in a Jewish cemetery. Don’t believe me? Go ask any orthodox Rabbi and they’ll tell you. Also, the Torah makes no comment on the art of tattooing. Any one who understands Biblical Hebrew will tell you that the verse in Vayikra 19:28, “You shall not make a cut in your flesh for the dead, and a tattoo you shall not place upon yourselves, I am HaShem” is not talking about tattooing. That translation is from the Artscroll Stone Edition, but those of you who read Hebrew will know that no translation is good enough to replace the actual Hebrew. In this verse the Hebrew word being translated into the word “tattoo” is the same word translated into “mark” in Bereishit 4:15, “… HaShem placed a mark upon Cain…” Do any of us believe that HaShem came down and tattooed Cain? No, and we shouldn’t believe that Vayikra is forbidding tattoos either. The verse in Vayikra is talking about the practice of cutting yourself for the dead and marking yourself for the dead. The reason the Torah doesn’t say “for the dead” after tattooing is because it was understood that cutting and marking yourself for the dead went hand in hand. We also need to understand that what would have been tattooing 3500 years ago bears absolutely no resemblance to the tattooing of today.

The reason we don’t tattoo ourselves as Jews is because our present and former Rabbis have told us not to. So we don’t because of the Rabbinical prohibition, but we also don’t judge Jews with tattoos, because as you can now see, HaShem never spoke on the subject. I happen to know plenty of orthodox Jews with tattoos… even an orthodox Rabbi. They all got tattoos before they were religious and no one ever looks down on them. And some of them don’t regret getting their tattoos, although they would never get anymore.

October 26, 2010 at 12:05 pm
(13) John A. says:

Regarless of what anyone says about tattoos,Or acceptance,Or burial.I have tattoos ,And even if I am cursed for having them or barred from a Jewish burial,I still wish to please,and serve G-D.Not dependant upon what I may receive or not in this world or the next.

December 15, 2010 at 11:57 pm
(14) Crystal says:

Yaakov:

I just wanted to say thank you for your well informed, educated, and rational comment here (in the face of such idiocy).

And Rabbi Disick, thank you for such a heartfelt answer to your audience. I loved everything you had to say.

August 18, 2011 at 1:10 am
(15) Danielle says:

Having or not having a tattoo does not make the person just because it may not be accepted in the majority vote. People need to learn to judge the person for them I have met far more kind hearted people with then without tattoos. I believe the Torah also states you should not judge your fellow man. People need to read and reread that’s all i have to say!

September 27, 2011 at 8:44 pm
(16) Natalie says:

Thank you all for sharing , I’v gotten a lot out of this .
I am a 30 year old female who has spent 1/2 her life in the tattoo industry , getting tattooed, working in shops, tattooing ,as well as designing art work . I am heavely tattooed as well . I’m at a point of my life were my family history is very important to me ,and a part of that history is having Jewish heritage on both parents sides, (both Grandmothers).This was somthing kept hidden from me from most of my life , yet I feel it is my birth rite to know about the faith as well as possibly convert at this point . How ever I am Heavly marked and was worried that would stand in the way of me fallowing my heart .

November 13, 2011 at 11:46 pm
(17) Harry says:

I have been studying Judism for several years. I thought very hard on converting about two years ago, but even though it has weighed on me for so long and still does I have reconsidered. I attended a baptist church for a few years but never accepted Jesus so obviously quit going. As nice as the people were I always felt as if they were ashamed to be seen with me outside of the church. I wouldn’t want to make anyone feel uncomfortable again espicially when they are worshipping G-D. I may be wrong I dont know and sorry for my horrible puncation and spelling.

December 25, 2011 at 3:24 pm
(18) Joachim says:

What appears to be lost here, is that as Jews, we are a diverse and dynamic group of people claiming a single tradition as our own – even though our understandings of that tradition defer. Debate, dialogue, and discussion are hallmarks of our identity as Jews. Lets attempt not to exclude one another from the conversation simply because we have differing viewpoints.

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