Tattooing, Body-Piercing, and Jewish Tradition
A congregant plans reconstructive breast surgery following a radical mastectomy. Her surgeon will tattoo an areola on the reconstructed breast. She wishes to know whether this would violate the traditional Jewish prohibition against tattooing. Is there a distinction to be drawn when the tattooing does not occur as a result of a medical procedure? What should be our response to the phenomenon of tattooing and body-piercing for the sake of adornment or self-expression? (Rabbi Bonnie Steinberg, Great Neck, NY)
Jewish tradition would permit this surgical procedure. There are, however, two reasons why one might think-erroneously-that it would not.
The first of these is the Torah’s prohibition against tattooing (ketovet ka`aka), the making of incisions in our skin. The prohibition, however, is understood as a preventive measure designed to separate Israel from pagan ritual, so that the making of incisions for other, legitimate purposes is exempted from its terms. Thus, the Talmud and the codes permit the placing of hot ashes upon a wound, even though the ashes might leave a permanent tatoo-like impression upon the skin. Such was accepted medical treatment, and so long as the impression is made for purposes of healing, “it is clear that it is not meant as an idolatrous practice.” In the present case, the tatoo is an element of reconstructive surgery in the wake of a mastectomy. As this is a legitimate medical procedure, there is no reason to prohibit the tatoo as an instance of ketovet ka`aka, a forbidden incision in the skin.
The second reason is that we might consider this procedure an example of cosmetic surgery, of which this Committee has taken a dim view. Our doubts concerning cosmetic surgery are based upon the halakhic prohibition of chavalah, the causing of injury to one’s body in the absence of sufficient reason. Although it is difficult to define this standard with precision, it has seemed to us that the invasive procedures involved with cosmetic surgery are justifiable only when they are part of a regimen of medicine, when they contribute to what we can plausibly regard as “healing.” Unless it can be justified as vital to an individual’s psychological and emotional well-being, surgery designed merely to enhance a person’s appearance runs counter to the message of Judaism, which “admonishes us to look below the surface, to concentrate upon the development of deeper and more lasting measurements of self-worth and satisfaction.” Yet here, too, we would find no basis upon which to counsel against the procedure described in our she’elah. This tatoo, because it is an element of reconstructive surgery, is a medical rather than a purely cosmetic procedure, and is therefore permissible under Jewish tradition.
This suggests the difficulty that confronts us as we approach the second part of this she’elah. What do we say concerning tattooing and body-piercing, particularly their more extreme forms, when these are not done as part of a medical procedure? We cannot reject them merely because they serve no medical purpose. It is an accepted custom in our culture to pierce one’s ears for purposes of adornment and beautification, and our Committee has written that such is permissible according to Jewish tradition. If so, then what is the essential difference between ear-piercing and the objectionable sorts of tattooing and body-piercing? If these practices differ only as a matter of degree, on what principled basis do we permit the one and forbid the other? And if we do declare the latter to be “forbidden,” can we be confident that our religious language is anything more than a smokescreen behind which one generation or group within a society seeks to impose its own standards of beauty, decorum, and taste upon those who do not share them?
These are indeed serious criticisms. But we must weigh them carefully against the demand of Jewish tradition, an obligation we take with the utmost seriousness, that we treat our bodies with reverence. Torah prohibits us from engaging in chavalah, from subjecting our bodies to needless physical damage, because to do so is to violate the dignity and sanctity that we, created in the divine image, have been endowed. It teaches us that we do not own our bodies; rather, God has entrusted them to us for safekeeping, and we are responsible to God for what we do with them during our lifetime. It is our duty to honor our bodies, to keep them healthy, safe and whole to the best of our ability. When we practice tattooing, body-piercing, or any other act of permanent physical alteration, we do not honor our bodies. Instead, we engage in an act of hubris and manipulation that most surely runs counter to the letter and spirit of our tradition. True, actions otherwise forbidden as chavalah are permitted for medical purposes, but from this it does not follow that they are permitted for any and all purposes. On the contrary: the fact that our sages have to cite arguments to justify chavalah in the name of healing suggests that they do not extend that permit to acts of disfigurement undertaken for the sake of adornment or self-expression.
Similarly, the fact that ear-piercing has gained acceptance as a cosmetic practice in our society simply means that some acts that might in theory be defined as chavalah are not so regarded by most of us. It does not mean that we must accept any and all sorts of bodily alteration as legitimate. We realize how difficult it is to distinguish in this case between the permissible and the impermissible. To so requires that we make value judgments that are inescapably contestable. But Judaism, like religion in general, is all about the making of value judgments; our task as Jews and as students of Torah is thus to arrive at those value judgments that reflect our most coherent understanding of Judaism’s message. And that message teaches us that there is a difference, a vital one, between cosmetics and disfigurement. The physical alteration of the human form, whether through cosmetic surgery, tattooing or the piercing of its organs, is an act of degradation rather than adornment, of disrespect rather than honor. To cut into our flesh for the sake of “enhancing” our appearance is to display arrogance and contempt toward the One who created the human form, “to say to the Artisan: ‘how ugly is this vessel that You have made!'”
Those Jews who engage in extensive cosmetic surgery, tattooing and body piercing will likely reject the above description. They will say that these practices do not constitute chavalah, “needless physical damage,” but instead reflect a desire to adorn the body, not to destroy it. They will remind us that body-piercing as a means of personal adornment is mentioned in the Bible. They will argue that styles of cosmetics, like styles of fashion, are relative to the culture in which we live, that they constitute important means of self-expression for those who adopt them, and that while others may not like them, they are in no position to criticize those who do. Yet to us, this disagreement is not fundamentally one of style and taste; it is about core Jewish values, the beliefs and affirmations upon which we construct our religious lives. Our response is therefore not a condemnation of modes of adornment we do not like but an invitation to those who adopt them to join us in thinking about this question in an essentially Jewish way. As Jews, that is to say, we should not look upon this issue as a debate over cosmetic style. We ought rather to approach it as we approach all questions of human existence: from the perspective of a people that seeks to live a life of holiness (kedushah) in response to its covenant with God. That perspective requires that we consider how our every action, the private as well as the public, contributes toward the sanctification of the world and of our own lives. The way we treat our bodies, including the manner in which we “adorn” them, is a statement of our attitude toward our relationship with God and our duties under the covenant.
Let us consider, therefore, what sort of statement we make about ourselves and our bodies when we inject pigment into our skin, when we pierce our flesh with needles, wire, studs and spikes. Let us ask ourselves whether this is truly the way that we Jews, commanded to pursue and to practice holiness, should aspire to “beautify” and “adorn” ourselves. Let us reflect with the utmost seriousness upon the values we proclaim when we engage in such practices. When we think about them in this Jewish manner, we begin to realize that surely we can aspire to something better. As Jews, considering this question from the vantage point of our tradition, we ought to perceive the extensive physical alteration of the human body, when undertaken without medical justification, as chavalah, an act of destruction undertaken for no good and worthwhile purpose, an act that symbolizes the sorts of violence that we work to banish from the world in which we raise our children.
We acknowledge that all such conclusions are subjective and laced with ambiguity. It is virtually impossible to draw in advance a sharp line that will determine whether any particular case of physical alteration is to be accepted as adornment or rejected as chavalah. We do not attempt here to present a catalogue of specific forbidden and permitted “cosmetic” procedures. We do suggest, however, that in general, tattooing and body-piercing conflict with our most carefully-considered understanding of our Jewish tradition.
Conclusion. Tattooing is certainly permissible as an element of reconstructive surgery. Yet Judaism requires that our bodies be treated with honor and respect. Therefore, while we recognize the importance of personal adornment, as Jews we must pursue it in the light of the historical Jewish emphasis on the integrity and holiness of the human form. Tattooing and body-piercing, when not part of a legitimate medical procedure, are most difficult to reconcile with that emphasis. They are chavalah, pointless destruction of the human form; we do not and cannot regard them as “adornments.” Unless and until we are otherwise persuaded, we should continue to teach that Judaism forbids these practices as the negation of holiness, the pointless and unacceptable disfigurement of the human body.
- Lev. 19:28. The rabbinical sources define this act as tattooing: an individual violates the prohibition only when he has both made an incision and filled the incision with ink or pigment. M. Makot 3:6, and Bartenura ad loc., following Rashi’s explanation of the Mishnah in BT Makot 21a. See also Yad, Avodat Kokhavim 12:11.
- “Thus was the practice among the Gentiles, that they would inscribe themselves to idolatry, as though they were slaves to the service of false gods”; Yad, Avodat Kokhavim 12:11. See Sefer Hachinukh, no.253: “the purpose of this mitzvah is to keep all aspects of idolatrous worship far from our bodies.” And see Tur YD 180: “Ketovet ka`aka is a practice associated with idolatry.”
- BT Makot 21a, the ruling of Rav Ashi; see Tosafot, s.v. rav.
- Hil. Harosh, Makot 3:6; Nimukey Yosef to Alfasi at Makot 21a; Shulchan Arukh YD 180:3.
- Siftey Kohen, YD 180, no. 6; see also Turey Zahav, YD 180, no. 1. Both these commentators explain the permit according to the language of Rav Ashi (note 3, above).
- Teshuvot for the Nineties (TFN), no. 5752.7.
- M. Bava Kama 8:6; Yad, Chovel 5:1; SA CM 420:31.
- Maimonides, for example, defines chavalah as exempts an act of self-damage that is undertaken for harmful or contemptible ends (Yad, Chovel 5:1). It follows that should a person supply a plausible reason for cosmetic surgery (such as making oneself more attractive and therefore more marriageable; see R. Moshe Feinstein, Resp. Igerot Moshe CM 2:66), the procedure is justifiable even though it involves damage to one’s existing physical form.
- TFN, no. 5752.7, at p. 131. As we note there, the argument based on “psychological and emotional well-being” must be made in each individual case; “in general, however, we think this argument is too frequently raised and too easily exaggerated.” See also R. Eliezer Yehudah Waldenberg, Resp. Tzitz Eliezer 11:41.
- TFN, no. 5757.2; CARR, no. 15.
- Unlike the mastectomy itself, reconstructive surgery is not directed against a threat to human life. Still, we regard it as a medical procedure because we understand “medicine” as the full array of technologies that physicians and other professionals customarily undertake in response to a condition of disease. In a similar way, we think of reproductive technologies as legitimate medicine, even though infertility per se does not threaten the life or health of the woman, because we can readily and plausibly define infertility as a disease, a condition for which medicine is an appropriate remedy; see our responsum 5757.2 at note 7. On the other hand, we believe that our community draws a significant distinction between cosmetic surgery aimed at the mere improving of appearance and reconstructive surgery designed to restore that which has been ravaged by disease. The former does not count as “medicine”; the latter does, and for this reason we have no qualms against the procedure on Judaic grounds.
- CARR, no. 76.
- Maimonides (Yad, Chovel 5:1) refers us to Deut. 25:3, which warns us not to exceed the lawful number of stripes when meting out corporal punishment to the wrongdoer. “If this is the case with the sinner, then how much more does it apply to one who is righteous” and does not deserve the beating; see BT Sanhedrin 85a and Rashi to the verse. Rambam posits that what applies to one’s fellow human being quite logically applies to oneself as well.
- See the commentary of R. David ibn Zimra to Yad, Sanhedrin 18:6: a person’s life (nefesh) is not his or her property; it belongs to God. This explains why a person’s confession to a capital crime is not admitted into evidence in Jewish law, “since one cannot testify to that which does not lie within one’s control.”
- See R. Eliezer Waldenberg, Resp. Tzitz Eliezer, 11:41, end. Note as well the dispute between R. Yosef Karo and R. Yoel Sirkes in the Beit Yosef and Bayit Chadash, respectively, to Tur YD 180, over whether it is permitted to make incisions in the skin as an act of sorrow. That an act might not technically violate a biblical prohibition and thereby escape the prescribed punishment does not mean that one is “permitted” to perform that act.
- See TFN, no. 5752.7, p. 130.
- We should not have to rehearse the distinction here between tattooing and body piercing, of which Judaism disapproves, and the practice of ritual circumcision, which it commands. Yet because some who read this responsum might imagine that they can draw a credible analogy between the two, we shall note the following. Berit milah is a religious rite of powerful significance that has served for thousands of years as a physical expression of the covenant between Israel and its God. No plausible link can be made between berit milah and the tatooing and body piercing that disfigure the human form in the name of “beauty” or “self-expression.” On the continuing–and deepening–religious significance of berit milah in the today’s Reform Judaism, see Lewis M. Barth, ed., Berit Milah in the Reform Context (New York: Berit Milah Board of Reform Judaism, 1990).
- BT Ta`anit 20b.
- See, for example, Gen. 24:47 and Ezekiel 16:12.
If needed, please consult Abbreviations used in CCAR Responsa.