Tattooing and Body Piercing

I have been teaching my 7th grade class about Jewish ideas of body and soul for the past month.  I entitled the class “Our Body and Our Selves:  Owning vs. Renting.”

One of the most interesting places that this idea plays itself out is in the arena of body art — tattooing and body piercing.

If we own our bodies, we should be able to do with it what we want:  color the skin,and pierce the skin and hang decorations wherever we want.  When we own a house, we are permitted to make whatever renovations we want without any restrictions.

However, if we are only “rentors,” temporary inhabitants of our bodies, it would make sense that the LandLord wouldn’t want us to paint the walls crazy colors.  It would also make sense that we shouldn’t be allowed to put nails in the walls and hang pictures all over the place in haphazard ways.

I’m sure most parents would be happy if it were in fact the case that they could tell their children that the Torah forbids tattooing and piercing.  However, that turns out not to be the case.  The prohibition against tattoos is reasonably explicit (Leviticus 19:28), but equally explicit verses about piercings in the ear and nose (Exodus 21:6, Genesis 24:47, Exodus 32:2) as well as Rabbinic references to women and men with pierced ears make it clear that body piecing is permitted!  Further, there is no compelling argument to permit ear and nose piercing while prohibiting eyebrow, belly button, or other skin piercing.

Rabbi Alan Lucas has written a fascinating teshuvah on the topic, which I will be teaching at an adult education series beginning April 18.  In the meantime, feel free to read Rabbi Lucas’ teshuvah here.

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