Hi, my name is Patrick, and as you can tell from the title of this blog (thanks Patheos for the chance to be here!) I am a rabbi with tattoos.
Generally speaking, when someone sees my tattoos and finds out I’m a rabbi, it elicits one or more of the following questions:
Doesn’t it say somewhere that you’re not supposed to do that?
You can’t get buried in a Jewish cemetery!
Haven’t you heard of the Holocaust?
My replies are as follows:
The Hebrew Bible says that you aren’t supposed to cut your flesh or make marks into it (Lev. 19:28). That is very true. As my Christian friends would say, “it’s gospel truth.” Leviticus also prohibits your hair style and the way you shape your beard (19:27) and also prohibits sowing two kinds of seed together in your field (19:19). So if you are a farmer who wants to make a living growing diverse crops, or have a sweet looking goatee to impress the ladies, you’re in a lot of trouble. I believe that spiritual texts represent the time in which they are written, and given that Leviticus puts the prohibition of eating blood and pagan divination in the same sentence (19:26), I’m certain that this section of the Torah is not really about what we do with our bodies, but what we are doing that serves pagan gods. None of my tattoos were for Asherah, Molech or Baal…so in my mind at least, I “get the pass”. Ironically, every one of my tattoos represents a Jewish theme. That is very intentional on my part.
As to the Jewish cemetery, I have yet to hear of a burial society rejecting a Jew’s right to be buried. Caring for the dead is considered a huge part of Judaism, to the point that a person called a shomer (from the word meaning “to guard”) is supposed to stay with the body at all times before it is placed in the ground. In death, we are at a our most vulnerable. It’s hard to believe that anyone who takes Judaism seriously would prevent the dead from being buried or perhaps more importantly, to cause a family that kind of pain and rejection.
As for the Holocaust, yes, I am more than familiar with it. A friend of mine (an older Reform rabbi) had parents who were in the concentration camps. When he first saw my tattoos, I was nervous. He is a man I deeply admire as a spiritual leader. I think he laughed when he saw them, and that was that. This taught me a valuable lesson: the past has the right to influence our decisions, but it doesn’t have the right to veto our God-given brains. Judaism is a relationship — and no healthy relationship is based on emotional blackmail, even about a history as horrible as Europe in the 1940’s.
So these are the replies I get to “how can a rabbi have tattoos”. They aren’t meant to be exhaustive legal, historical, or cultural treatise, but they get me by at Shabbat dinners or fancy Jewish fundraisers. It’s the “index card answer”, if you will.
My tattoos are not meant to offend anyone (they seldom do) and they are not meant to be a statement about Jewish law. They are mine. They are meaningful. They are my art.
My tattoos serve an interesting function: as an ice breaker toward big, spiritual conversations. Someone will see my tattoos and ask me what they say, only to find out they had a bar mitzvah once, and since have dropped out of Judaism all together. Women tend to like my hamsah, or the roses that surround my tattoo of the phrase “achat shaalti”, which means “the one I seek”.
I’m thrilled my tattoos can serve as a vehicle to talk about God, the meaning of life, or even a brisket recipe. And perhaps that is why I continue to get these tattoos.
You see, another complaint about my tattoos are that they descicrate my body. Human beings, we are told, are made in God’s image (btzelem elohim). To get a tattoo is to wreck that sacred image.
But I see btzelem elohim as seeing God in the “other”. Strangers see my tattoos and ask questions. In that moment, it’s not about my answers, but about connecting to the otherness that we share. It’s a spiritual experience for me: the kind of experience scholar Martin Buber reffered to as an “I-Thou” relationship. That could be why this same section of Leviticus reminds us to be just, to reject hate, and to be kind to those who are foreign to us.
When someone I don’t know has the courage to ask me how a rabbi can have tattoos, it’s never about the tattoos — it’s about their Jewish identity, it’s about their understanding of thousands of years of history — it’s about who they are, and how they are a radiant expression of God’s eternity, whether they know it or not.
Hi, I’m a rabbi who has tattoos. Ask me anything. Perhaps God will show up. Perhaps God is already here.