This topic (along with piercings) comes up perennially in youth group and confirmation settings. I find myself having to address it every three or four years in those settings.
While I personally find tattoos distasteful, unflattering, often somewhat freakish, and slightly repulsive, I am aware that not everyone shares that view, and that it is particularly not held among young adults.
There are two primary reasons that tattoos are not accepted in the Jewish community.
In Jewish tradition, and following Halachah (Jewish law), tattooing is explicitly forbidden because a tattoo is produced by the process of repeatedly inserting a needle into the skin and injecting a dye or ink. Because of the process used, it fails the test set by the Torah that one may not make a ‘gash’ or ‘incision’ or ‘cutting’ in the skin/body to mark or adorn it.
Some feel that in the aftermath of the Shoah (Holocaust), when so many were tattooed against their will and unwillingly as a way to humiliate and dehumanize them, to seek a tattoo as a decoration is to minimize their suffering and abuse. I am saddened to say that as time has passed, and the number of survivors has dwindled, this second reason has been of diminishing impact among younger Jews.
The overall Reform position on this seems to be in line with much of what is said in other matters: Jewish tradition is not in favor of this act, and we discourage it, but each person may act with autonomy and make their own decision about it.
As for the concern you express about future burial, I am sorry to shoot down a myth upon which many Jewish parents have relied for years, but I don’t wish to perpetuate a falsehood. Having a tattoo is not in and of itself enough to prevent someone who is Jewish from having a Jewish funeral or being buried in a Jewish cemetery. For example, I cannot imagine any Jewish cemetery that would refuse burial for a Holocaust survivor simply because they had a tattoo.
Restrictions on burial in a cemetery tend to be set by the rules of the cemetery in question. A cemetery run by an Orthodox group may have different rules than one run by a Reform group, and both may differ from a cemetery run by a Conservative group, but equally true is that two Reform cemeteries may have very different rules. There is no overall rule that one can refer to as the definitive statement.
As a general matter, I would suggest that the family of a Jewish person who is to be buried will be able to find a Jewish cemetery where that person can be buried. They may find that one or another cemetery will not agree, but in the end, a Jewish person is likely to be accepted for burial in a Jewish cemetery. The existence of a tattoo (or several) may affect which cemetery, but should not prevent a Jewish funeral and burial.
We need to separate the issue of tattooing from the issue of burial.
Tattooing is clearly forbidden according to Jewish law. The Winter 2009 (42:4) issue of Tradition contains a lengthy aticle by Rabbi J. David Bleich on the matter (pp. 58-95).
On the other hand, however repulsive non-medical tattooing is, nevertheless this does not mean that the tattooed person will be denied burial in a Jewish cemetery. A tattooed Jew is, and remains a Jew.
The fact that tattoos are not a bar to Jewish burial should not be seen as a capitulation, or as a dropping of the objection to tattooing. That objection remains unabated, as does the revulsion at the practice.
Torah forbids tattooing one's body with permanent marks by the combination of penetrating the skin and inserting an indelible ink or coloring (ketovet qa'qa' - Leviticus 19:28). The prohibition appears in the context of laws defining Jews as a holy people, distancing us from the ways of idolatrous peoples. The penalty for violating this law (Mishnah Makkot 3:6, B. Talmud Makkot 21a) is no more severe than for violating any other prohibition of the Torah (e.g. eating non-kosher food) that does not define a more severe penalty for it explicitly (e.g., for murder and a few other violations, the Torah prescribes more severe penalties). The penalty for tattooing does not include any restriction on burial.
This is not the first time I have heard a Jew say that one with a tattoo won't be eligible to be buried in a Jewish cemetery. I have not been able to find any classical source that states that. Nor have I been able to find any other rabbi (and I have asked rabbis of all various stripes) who has heard of a prohibition against burying a Jew with a tattoo in a Jewish ceremony/cemetery. I have no idea where such an idea came from, and I will refrain from speculating as to how such an idea might have arisen.
Since I can't find any rabbis who would prohibit burial of a Jew with a tattoo in a Jewish cemetery, even if there is somewhere in the world some Jewish authority I haven't found yet who would have a problem with it, I cannot imagine any way that Jews with tattoos would be excluded from Jewish cemeteries.
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