Question: If I get a tattoo, can I still be buried in a Jewish cemetery?
I am Jewish, a college student, and I'd like a tattoo. Some of my American Jewish friends have tattoos, and I remember seeing plenty of people in Israel with tattoos when I visited. Am I allowed by Jewish law to get a tattoo? If I get a tattoo, can I still be buried in a Jewish cemetery?
Answer: You are interested in getting a tattoo, but you are concerned that it would exclude you from burial in a Jewish cemetery. You are not sure about conflicting things you've heard about the position of Jewish law concerning tattoos.
In general, Jewish law does not permit the intentional defacement of the human body, and this applies to tattoos. Also, after the Holocaust, many Jews are repulsed by the idea of marking their bodies in the way that the Nazis marked the bodies of their victims.
However, I do not know of any rabbi or Jewish cemetery that would refuse to bury a Jew because their body had a tattoo. That would be a terrible violation of the Jewish principle of Kavod Ha-Meit, giving honor to the dead.
The vast majority of Jews in Israel are secular -- non-religious -- in their practice and beliefs. This would explain the tattoos that you saw there. It is no indication of the position of either liberal or orthodox Judaism.
I would also ask you this question: What would you gain by having a permanent tattoo placed on your body? It will not make you a better person. If you imagine that it would make you feel better about yourself, you may have issues about your self-image that no tattoo will solve. It's worth asking tough questions like these before making a choice as a young person that you will carry with you for the rest of your life.
Rabbi Jeffrey Goldwasser