Ask the Rabbi: Jews and Tattoos

Image: Person getting a tattoo on their forearm. (Aamir Mohd Khan /Pixabay

“Rabbi, I have heard that if a person has a tattoo, they cannot be buried in a Jewish cemetery. Is that true?”

The textual reference for this bit of misinformation is a line in Leviticus, from the Holiness Code:

You shall not make gashes in your flesh for the dead, or incise any marks on yourselves: I am the Eternal.

Leviticus 19:28

This was originally likely a reference to outside religious practices in the ancient Near East, although the specifics have been lost to history. Many of our ritual practices, both “do’s” and “don’ts” served to distinguish the People of the God of Israel from their neighbors. Similarly, the previous verse commands:

You shall not round off the side-growth on your head, or destroy the side-growth of your beard.

Leviticus 19:27

Just as there are some Jews who observe the side-growth mitzvah [sacred duty] by wearing peyot [side locks] there are Jews who would never, ever get a tattoo. However, there are many Jews with non-kosher haircuts, and a number of Jews with tattoos they got for beautification or for medical reasons.

So yes, there is a traditional Jewish aversion to body art, including tattoos. This aversion has been heightened by the experience of forcible tattooing of Jews during the Holocaust.

Jewish tradition sees the body as a holy vessel in which we are embodied in the world, and through which we carry out mitzvot. We should therefore care for our bodies and treat them with respect. In the last twenty years it has become common for people to view tattoos as a form of beautification, or as an art form, and some have even used this art form to express their devotion to Judaism or Jewish values.

It is possible that somewhere in the world there is a Jewish cemetery with a “NO TATTOOS” rule. However, I am not aware of such a cemetery, and I would be surprised to find such a place. The commandment to bury a body respectfully overrides the aversion to markings, precisely because we put such a high value on caring for the body, in death as well as in life.

So let the myth be debunked: your tattoo’ed body can be buried in a Jewish cemetery. In the meantime, concern yourself with using that body to do some mitzvot!

P.S. – If you are considering getting a tattoo in Hebrew, please proceed with caution. Unless you have an observer who knows Hebrew, it is very easy for a non-Hebrew-speaking tattoo artist to get a design backwards, upside down, or misspelled. Better yet, study Hebrew yourself, then get the tattoo.

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Lights for Liberty

Are you frustrated, watching stories on the news about the situation of immigrants and refugees at the U.S. border?

Today I learned from a source I trust about this coalition of groups working to improve things.

If you are looking for something to DO, check them out:

Lights for Liberty

Whatever your feelings about the politics of the situation, our own government – the DHS Office of the Inspector General – has published a report calling the current housing for these people “dangerous” and “unsafe.” There are concerns about disease in “inhumane conditions.”

We can and must do better.

July 1: This Year, Part Two

Image: Half-drunk cup of coffee next to a list “2019 goals” (Shutterstock, all rights reserved.)

Today we begin the second half of 2019. Do you remember your New Year’s resolutions, whether you made them at Rosh Hashanah or at the secular New Year? What happened with them? What happened with you?

If your resolutions were life-changing and are now accomplished, mazal tov! I’d love to hear about them in the comments.

If you are like many of us, and those resolutions faded, I want to suggest to you that they are still useful – not as resolutions, but as information. In last week’s Torah portion, Shelach-Lecha, Moses sent spies into the Land of Israel to check it out. The spies came back with a 10-to-2 vote that the Land was too scary and the Israelites too weak. God was furious at the lack of faith, and declared that none of that generation would enter the Land. Instead, they would live out their lives in the wilderness, and their children would enter the Land.

We usually read that story as a failure: foolish Israelites, not having the faith to finish the job! We read God’s response as a punishment.

But was it really a punishment, or just an acknowledgment of reality? The former slaves were not equipped emotionally to make war in the Land. Instead, God cared for them in the wilderness, feeding them manna and renewing their clothing. Midrash tells us that all their needs were met while they lived in the desert. The damage from enslavement was too great: so God cared for them until a new generation came of age.

Resolutions that didn’t work out give us important information about ourselves. Often we adopt a resolution because there is something we don’t like about ourselves. Do we need to change that thing – or do we need to learn to accept ourselves as we are? Did we need someone to guide us as we made that change? Did we need to seek out better support? Did denial about something important keep us from from our resolution? Or did we take on a resolution because we wanted someone else to change? (Spoiler: that never works.)

Let’s use these days of summer to think about those old resolutions. If they succeeded, celebrate! And if not, let’s mine them for insight and opportunity.

I wish you a happy Half Year!

“Disturb us, Adonai!”

Image: A “do not disturb” door hanger, with “do not” replaced with “PLEASE” (Shutterstock with amendation, all rights reserved.)

Mishkan Tefilah, the Reform siddur, is full of “alternative readings” – prayer and poetry that may be read alongside or even instead of the usual prayers. One caught my eye this week, and I spent the rest of the service sneaking back to reread it and think about it some more:

Disturb us, Adonai, ruffle us from our complacency;

Make us dissatisfied. Dissatisfied with the peace of ignorance,

the quietude which arises from a shunning of the horror, the defeat,

the bitterness and the poverty, physical and spiritual, of humans.

Shock us, Adonai, deny to use the false Shabbat which gives us

the delusions of satisfaction amid a world of war and hatred;

Wake us, O God, and shake us

from the sweet and sad poignancies rendered by

half forgotten melodies and rubric prayers of yesteryears…

Mishkan Tefilah, 173

The prayer was precisely what I needed that night: a kick in the pants.

Curious, I went to the back of the book to see who wrote it, and I discovered a wonderful, almost-forgotten character, Rabbi Mitchell Salem Fisher, a Reform rabbi from the early 20th century who left the rabbinate for a law practice in 1930 because he was frustrated with the limits of the pulpit. More about him in a future post!

I’ve held off from copying the entire prayer out of respect for the copyright, but you can find this prayer in any copy of Mishkan Tefilah.

If ever there was a prayer for our times, it is this one.

Why Small Donations Matter

Image: Two piggybanks: one plain white on a wooden table, one gold on a steel background. Photos from Pixabay.

In a recent post, Tzedakah for Healing and Empowerment, I talked about the effect of the mitzvah on the person who contributes tzedakah. Even the smallest tzedakah contributions contribute to the well-being of the giver as well as the recipient.

Now I’d like to talk a little bit about the importance of those same small donations. Many small donors have said to me, “The donation that I can afford will not make any difference to Congregation Beth Plony* or Jewish Family Services. They have big donors who give a lot of money.”

It is true that Jewish non-profits have a tendency to lionize large donors. They do this because the competition for their dollars is fierce. There has been a shift in the past quarter century, moving from the model of the Federations as central clearinghouses of tzedakah to a model in which individual large donors support pet projects and organizations. Partly this reflects the shift in the American economy towards income inequality: people at the top have more discretionary income, and people at the bottom have less.

Most Jewish nonprofits rely almost entirely on fundraising to support their activities and efforts. In this structure, the major portion of budgets is raised from a select number of ultrawealthy Jews. These donors are given significant leadership positions in Jewish institutions, resulting in what is effectively an undemocratic and unrepresentative plutocracy.

“Big Jewish Nonprofits Can’t Keep Letting Only the Ultrawealthy Call the Shots,” by Jay Ruderman and Hanna Shaul Bar Nissim

While a potential small tzedakah-contributor may chafe against the domination of major donors, there is also the lure of FREE: free trips, free programs, etc. “Why not let the big donors take care of it, and I will participate, maybe even volunteer a little, and enjoy the free stuff?”

I believe this is unhealthy for the donors, for the organizations and for individual Jews in those organizations:

  1. For the donors, Jewish institutions become a place where one’s goals or behavior are not challenged, because a challenge might mean that the money goes elsewhere.
  2. For the institutions that dependent on a smaller number of donors, or worse, a single donor, donors’ whims loom large.
  3. And perhaps worst of all, for the individuals in or served by the organization, this arrangement is infantilizing: they become passive consumers of services rather than participants in a living Jewish community.

Small donations matter. Participation matters. Representation matters.

I challenge large donors to consider that part of tzedakah is releasing the money and the power it represents. In Leviticus 19:9-10, landowners are commanded to leave the corners of the field for the needy. While this agricultural mitzvah is binding only on farmers in the land of Israel, our sages used it to talk about the obligation of tzedakah, to care for the suffering and needy. The verb תַּעֲזֹ֣ב  (ta-ah-ZOV,) meaning “you will leave” is significant: it denotes a giving-up of some control. Also, Maimonides’ emphasis on anonymous giving can be a healthy move, as well as a meretricious move, for large donors.

I challenge institutions to consider how much they depend on large donors, and how they might cultivate and appreciate more ordinary donors. Currently, what are your practices regarding small donors? How might those be improved? How economically diverse is your board of directors? What does your treatment of donors large and small say about the values of your organization?

I challenge those of us who are ordinary tzedakah-givers to renew our interest in giving to Jewish institutions, and to bring our ideas about cultivation and appreciation to the leaders of those institutions. The world is full of worthy causes – but how are Jewish institutions going to thrive without Jewish donors? How are they going to grow and be there for a future generation without you?

*Plony is the Aramaic equivalent of “John Doe.” “Congregation Beth Plony” means any congregation: mine, or yours, or someone else’s. If you want the feminine form, that would be Plonit.

We Must Not Stop Caring

The news is full of pictures of the camps on the southern border of the United States. The photo above is from one such news item, from “What We Know: Family Separation And ‘Zero Tolerance’ At The Border” from npr.org. I know that many of you are, like me, horrified at these reports.

I have been told that these camps existed during the Obama administration. If so, shame on us- this policy does not fit with my understanding of what America is supposed to be. We are slamming the door not only to immigrants like our own ancestors, but slamming doors on refugees from violence, people seeking asylum from terrible danger. I don’t care when it started; I want it to stop, and to be replaced by a fair and coherent immigration policy, something that both Republican and Democratic administrations have so far failed to produce.

I’ve written letters and made calls for months, and the news has only gotten worse. I’ve sent donations, and seen no progress. It is very, very easy to get weary, to decide that nothing will help, and to feel how tired I am of all this worry and activity. That weariness is a temptation to stop caring so much.

Ever since I first heard about the so-called detainment camps and the separation of children from their parents, I have protested it using the verse Deuteronomy 10:19: “You must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” I’ve quoted those words so often, with so little result, that they have begun to seem meaningless.

Verses do that sometimes. They become rote, syllables that I repeat. At that point I step back and look at the larger context of the thing I’ve been quoting:

Cut away, therefore, the thickening about your hearts and stiffen your necks no more. For the LORD your God is God supreme and Lord supreme, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who shows no favor and takes no bribe, but upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and befriends the stranger, providing him with food and clothing.

You too must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

Deuteronomy 10:16-19

Listen to the violence in that passage! “Cut away the thickening about your hearts, and stiffen your necks no more.” This verse is sometimes translated literally as “circumcise your hearts” but I prefer this translation because it brings the metaphor closer – we are not talking about brit milah here (upon which we moderns can get sidetracked into debate) – we’re talking about heart surgery!

We who have been sending in our tax dollars to pay agents to orphan children by taking them from their parents —

We who have been leaving mothers and fathers weeping for their children —

We who have been treating strangers like animals, caging them and denying them basic needs like soap and toothbrushes —

We who have been doing this out of fear (“they will rape our women”) or out of greed (“they will get our jobs”) need to change our hearts today!

We who have acquiesced to it by blaming the bad stuff on the president and his people, by saying, “I didn’t do that” or “that’s not US!” need to change our hearts today!

O God, who knows the hearts of all, please help us cut away the calluses on our hearts, please help us to care. Help our caring to find a better way: a just and coherent immigration policy, with the support it needs to succeed.

The worse the news, the longer it goes on, the more urgent it is that we care and that we continue taking action. If you would like a list of possible actions you might take to care and to act, Slate Magazine recently posted an excellent list.

We must not stop caring!

Do Jews Believe in the Devil?

Image: An image of a devil. (by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay)

The very short answer is: No, Jews do not believe in the Devil of Christian theology.

A longer, more complete answer:

Jewish scripture has a character known as HaSatan, the Adversary. HaSatan appears in the beginning of the Book of Job:

One day the divine beings presented themselves before the LORD, and the Adversary came along with them.

The LORD said to the Adversary, “Where have you been?” The Adversary answered the LORD, “I have been roaming all over the earth.”

The LORD said to the Adversary, “Have you noticed My servant Job? There is no one like him on earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and shuns evil!”

Job 1:6-8

In this and in chapter 3 of the book of Zachariah, “HaSatan” is not a personality. HaSatan is the title of a role, a job description. “Ha” means “the.” “Satan” means “adversary.” In Job, HaSatan plays the persecutor, taunting God that Job only loves God because God has been good to him. God allows HaSatan to inflict suffering on Job so that Job can demonstrate his faith in God. In Zachariah, he is the Accuser, and an angel (malach) is God’s mouthpiece, rejecting the accusations of HaSatan.

The figure in the adversary role has little or no volition: it cannot do anything without the permission of God. It plays a role equivalent to that in English of a “devil’s adversary:” it is an expression of opposition. Angels have a similar role in the Jewish Bible: they function as messengers or as extensions of God, but they do not have agency of their own.

Sometimes in other texts HaSatan is an expression of the yetzer harah, the evil or selfish inclination. It never acquires the independence, to say nothing of the raw power, of the Satan figure in Christian tradition.

There are a number of Talmudic texts about HaSatan, for instance:

Reish Lakish says: Satan, the evil inclination, and the Angel of Death are one, that is, they are three aspects of the same essence. He is the Satan who seduces people and then accuses them, as it is written: “So the Satan went forth from the presence of the Lord, and smote Job with vile sores” (Job 2:7). He is also the evil inclination, as it is written there: “The impulse of the thoughts of [the human] heart was only evil continuously” (Genesis 6:5); and it is written here: “Only upon [Job] do not put forth your hand” (Job 1:12). The verbal analogy between the various uses of the word “only” teaches that the evil inclination is to be identified with the Satan. He is also the Angel of Death, as it is written: “Only spare his life” (Job 2:6); apparently Job’s life depends upon him, the Satan, and accordingly the Satan must also be the Angel of Death.

Bava Batra 16a

HaSatan has these roles (a named figure in Job, the evil inclination in humans, and the Angel of Death) as it is picked up as a theme in Jewish mystical writing and in folklore, but it is in those sources that it takes on a role more like that of the Christian Satan. That may be from cross-pollination of Jewish and Christian ideas in golden-age Spain and in northern Europe. It may also have arisen from the need of a suffering people to separate the suffering in life from the all-good person of their God.

At any rate, most modern Jews do not believe in “Hell” and do not believe in “Satan” as an independent figure busy in the world. We are much more inclined to attribute the evils that come from human misbehavior to human beings, and to attribute “evils” from the natural world (earthquakes and other natural disasters) to the balance of nature established by God.

Jews have been and continue to be ferociously monotheistic, so that an independent and equal opponent to God is a logical impossibility.

What do you believe, and why?