Jewish Women Modified: The Halachic Skinny on Piercing and Tattoos

Back in the early 90's Davka, a magazine for twenty-something Jews, ran a cover photograph of a tattooed woman with purple hair, wearing a tallis and tefllin and not much else.

Back in the early 90’s Darka, a magazine for twenty-something Jews, ran a cover photograph of a tattooed woman with purple hair, wearing a tallis and tefillin and not to much else.

Reviews of the new magazine in various ‘alternative’ periodicals all hastened to point out how shocking the cover was. A woman! With tattoos! And purple hair! Wearing tefillin! It’s . . . forbidden, right? Of course, the cover was meant to shock, or at least grab your attention. But I noticed the way that people responding to it, Jews as well as gentiles, couldn’t quite sort out which parts were actual violations of Jewish tradition, and which were just oddball or eye-catching because of the contrast between the frum and the punk elements in the picture.

For young Jewish women, the confusion that cover photo created points to some significant issues. American Jewish women are increasingly interested in bringing Jewish learning and tradition into our lives. (Even those of us who aren’t at all observant connect to the community through family, social events, and cultural practices.) And Generation X is into the body as art. Tattoos are more mainstream now than they’ve been in a long time, and nose, eyebrow, lip and nipple piercings are not uncommon. We dye our hair pink, we henna our hands and rub glitter on our faces and over our breasts before we go out dancing. We decorate ourselves in all kinds of ways, some temporary, some permanent. And Jewish women are often confused about the Jewish significance of all of this. What’s okay? What’s not? What are the consequences if I go over the line? Do I get to come back? So here’s the straight scoop on some basics about Judaism and these body adornments.

You know, the Jewess with the rose tattoo . . .

Most people have been told at one point or another that ‘if you have a tattoo, you can’t be buried in a Jewish cemetery’. I have heard this dozens of times, often from gentiles, many times from other Jews. I’ve heard it given as a reason for not getting a tattoo, a reason/or getting a tattoo, and a reason that Judaism is an outdated screwy culture and religion that ought to be abandoned. I’ve also run across many people who believe that if you’ve had your ears or other parts pierced, you can’t be buried in a Jewish cemetery. A lot of Jews who have tattoos and piercings firmly believe this. Silja Talvi, in her essay ‘Marked for Life tattoos and the redefinition of self, writes that ‘Jewish edicts further prohibit the burial of a tattooed person, a prohibition I learned about only after having been tattooed.”

Wrong! And so are the many Jews, some quite observant, who believe the same thing. Jews with tattoos can and are buried in Jewish cemeteries, and Jews with piercings are buried in Jewish cemeteries. A fact (Jewish law does forbid tattooing, and Jews with tattoos are not viewed with a lot of favor by the observant) has been blown up into a pervasive idea that tattooing, and maybe all forms of body modification, is grounds for being excluded from Jewish burial, automatically kicked out of the Jewish community for all eternity. This is not true. The Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards said in a 1998 statement on tattooing and piercing tattooing and piercing:

Tattooing is an explicit prohibition from the Torah. However, those who violate this prohibition may be buried in a Jewish cemetery and participate fully in all synagogue ritual. While no sanctions are imposed, the practice should continue to be discouraged as a violation of the Torah. Body piercing is not prohibited although legitimate concerns regarding tzniut (modesty) and other traditional Jewish values should be taken into consideration and guide one’s choices.

Modern Orthodox and Reform sources agree. I cite this piece of response because it clearly sums up the normative interpretation of Jewish law as it relates to this issue. Show this to your Uncle Nathan who told you that you were out of Hills of Eternity, and calm down your Bubbe who believed him and who’s been in a panic since you got your girlfriend’s name inked on your shoulder,

Tattooing is indeed forbidden by Jewish law, and that prohibition is taken somewhat more seriously by the Jewish community than many others. Its forbidden qualities may have been reinforced by the fact that, traditionally, tattooing was seen as a lower class thing, not an appropriate behavior for respectable working people, or those in the middle class. Bus trying to survive and thrive in the New World, Jews were unlikely to adopt an alien custom that was both forbidden by Jewish tradition and associated with marginal people by the dominant culture.

The uneasiness of contemporary Jews about tattooing has recent horror behind it as well. For many Jews, tattooing recalls the experience of prisoners in Nazi camps. In a family or community with members who are survivors, tattooing’s negative connotations can be resounding, and disapproval of a Jew who gets a tattoo for whatever reasons can be extreme. This is one reason Jewish women often give for deciding not to get tattoos. Others get them for this very reason . . . some children and grandchildren of survivors have told me that for them, getting a tattoo with a positive meaning was a way of healing the family trauma.

Yes, nose rings are in the Torah . . .

Piercing is another matter entirely. Have you heard that Jews are forbidden to have pierced ears? Or that you can’t be buried in a Jewish cemetery if you have pierced ears? Hasn’t anyone who repeats this ever read All-Of-A-Kind Family? Doesn’t anyone remember the chapter where Sarah turns ten and her uncle takes her to get her ears pierced?

Jewish women have been piercing their ears and noses in complete accordance with Jewish law and local beauty standards since very ancient times. There are references in the Tanach to women wearing earrings and nose rings, and being given such jewelry as engagement gifts. In European communities, nose rings weren’t worn since they didn’t coincide with European fashions—but Jewish women in some Middle Eastern and Indian communities certainly wore them. And Ashkenazic women continued to pierce their ears.

In fact, during the experimental heyday of early Jewish feminist ritual creation in the 1970s, suggestions were made that girls’ ears could be pierced at eight days, as a feminine form of the brit. (My mom points out that in some Sephardic communities it’s an established convention to pierce baby girls’ ears, so even the radical is traditional.)

I know a “mikvah lady” who mentions that there is a problem with taking piercings into the mikvah if you have had the ring soldered shut so that it can’t be removed. In order to make a kosher dip in the mikvah, you need to remove all your jewelry, including piercings, so that nothing gets between your body and the water. If you use a mikvah for any reason, or will have reason to in the future, bear this in mind before getting any body jewelry that can’t be taken out briefly.

But there is nothing in Jewish tradition that states that you can’t have pierced ears, a nose ring, a pierced eyebrow, navel, nipples, or whatever your little heart desires. Read up on the law. This tradition belongs to us, so let’s know what’s really written!

Charlotte Honigman-Smith is a writer and activist living in San Francisco. She edits Maydeleh, a zine for nice Jewish girls, where a version of this article appeared.