Monthly Archives: February 2013

Tattooing and Body Piercing in Jewish Law

Now, there’s an interesting title for a blog post. Actually, let me explain the context. I have been teaching a class this year in which we have been studying  teshuvot, Rabbinic legal rulings, of the Conservative movement and the last teshvua that we studied was written by Rabbi Alan Lucas on the subject of Tattoing and Body Piercing. The teshuva was written back in 1997 and was approved by the Rabbinical Assembly Committee on Jewish Law and Standards.  As with all of the teshuvot we have studied, I am interested not only in the specifics of the law but in more general questions that the subject raises.

With regard to tattooing, Rabbi Lucas concludes, and I agree 100%, that tattooing is against Jewish law. He gives many reasons for this and to all of those I would add one more which he implies but does not state in detail. The fact that so many Jews were tattooed against their will by the Nazis should compel us to avoid willingly being tattooed. It seems to me that the very association of this act with the savage, inhuman cruelty of the Nazi makes tattooing wrong for Jews.

However, Rabbi Lucas  also brings up one critical point. He says that under no circumstances should the fact that person has a tattoo be a reason to restrict their participation in the Jewish community, whether we talk about ritual roles such as reading Torah for the congregation or, and this is the most frequent question asked on the subject, burial in a Jewish cemetery. Despite what thousands of well intentioned Jewish parents have told their children, having a tattoo does not prevent one from being buried in a Jewish cemetery.

I find this to be a critical point because to teach otherwise is to imply that one act performed over the course of one’s life could possibly disqualify someone from being part of our community.  With the possible exception of those who denigrate Judaism or the Jewish people publicly and do not express any regret- and even this is debatable-  a Jew who “sins” is still a Jew. So, even if one were to consider getting tattooed a sin which it is in the strictest definition of the word, it would not condemn a person to a life outside of the Jewish community in life or in death. We believe in teshuva, in repentence which, in this case, might be hard to “undo” in that tattoo removal is so difficult. But, we also need to keep perspective that as much as one might find tattooing objectionable and advise and teach against it, it should not today  be viewed necessarily as a sign of unethical or immoral behavior and we should be more concerned about other actions that do have more serious implications for the world.

Then, Rabbi Lucas turned his attention to body piercing which of course is even more of an issue today than in 1997 when he wrote the teshuva. Here too, I agree with what he teaches.

He argues that there are many precedents in Jewish law for body piercing, usually restricted to the ear and nose, all the way back to the Torah. And, he reasons, besides our own sense of what “seems right”, there is no reason to make any distinction between the piercing of an ear or any other part of the body. If one accepts piercing ears as being appropriate, then it is hard to draw the line someplace else unless, and he correctly argues this point, there is an increased danger of infection because of the particular part of the body being pierced.

He argues that there is really no foundation to forbid body piercing according to Jewish law. One can say that it doesn’t show respect for the body, an important principle within our tradition, but if one says that they see in such piercing beauty and an enhancement of their body, it is hard to say objectively that they are wrong.

But, then he brings up one other point saying that he knows many people think there is just something that doesn’t seem right about it and it doesn’t seem like the way a Jew should act even though it is permitted.

I am fascinated by this line of reasoning. Whether we talk about body piercing or any other subject, the fact that Jewish law might permit something doesn’t mean that it is necessarily positive. This brings up a very serious discussion of Jewish law: are there moral guidelines that exist outside of Jewish law? Can a person who observes halacha scrupulously still fall short of moral or ethical standards for being a mentsch? And, if that is true, how could Jewish law endorse an action which is less than perfect?

These are very serious questions indeed and I would urge you to think about them. The example of body piercing, permitted in Jewish law, but to some objectionable, brings this question into focus. However, there are many more questions that could come from this same discussion.

Eating meat is permitted according to Jewish law, but perhaps being a vegetarian is, as some Rabbis have argued, the ultimate ethical response to our needs to eat.

Sharing your limited supply of water with someone when you both are lost and near death from thirst  is wrong according to Jewish law if you are putting yourself in more grave danger without any guarantee that either of you would survive. Yet, would it be wrong to violate Jewish law in this case and share the water thinking it is a more ethical decision?

We’re a long way from body piercing when we discuss questions of this kind but this is what is fascinating about studying Jewish law. Even the most specific question can lead to very serious issues conceptually and philosophically as we strive to sanctify our lives to the highest degree possible.



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Purim 5773

As we prepare for Purim,  a cast of staff members and congregants have been working feverishly to perfect the Peanuts characters we will be portraying on Saturday evening.

Actually, that’s not really true. We have been working hard and preparing quite diligently for the evening but there is a certain characteristic to Charlie Brown and company which has struck all of us in our preparation. The charm of Peanuts is found in its low key atmosphere, in its simple portrayal of life. But, in that low key, quiet way, it not only finds its way into our hearts but into our minds as well.  So, we’ve been working hard but tapping into something a little less hassled and hurried than preparing for a synagogue Purim evening usually brings. And, it has been very refreshing.

One could argue whether the Peanuts characters are really children or whether Charles Schulz tapped  into the childlike piece of all of us and portray adults in all our aspects as approaching the world with a childlike wonder and curiousity, not to mention occasional dreams and certainly frustrations.  I believe it is the latter and I feel that the quiet wisdom these “children” teach us is a gift that all of us who have taken the time to read, watch and enjoy the gang have benefitted from.

Besides that, of course, they are very, very funny.

I hope you’ll be with us on Saturday evening for some nostalgia and some unique twists on the Purim story and more as  seen through the eyes of Charlie Brown, Lucy, Schroeder, Snoopy and all the rest.

In the meantime, I want to share with you a prayer I wrote for Rosh Hashana a few years ago. It is as appropriate for this or any Shabbat as it was as we entered a new year.


As we look for role models around us, let us learn from those whose example shines for us in our contemporary world as well as those who came before us. And, let us always look for role models in unexpected places.

And, so let us learn.

From Schroeder, who played the most beautiful piano music with his talented hands on a toy piano, let us learn to take the simple instruments we have: our hands, our voices, our hearts, and make the most beautiful music, rising above all of our limitations to make the best use of the talents we have been given.

From Linus, who carried his security blanket everywhere, let us learn to treasure the things which bring us security in the world: holding tight to family, friends and faith to help us to steer our way through the difficult days ahead.

From Lucy, who showed brash chutzpah, let us learn to face this world with confidence but let us figure out a way to leave the arrogance behind and make room for others and respect them.

From Pig Pen, who perpetually walked in a cloud of dust, let us really be a part of this world, let us get dirty doing good deeds, let us feel the earth between our fingers and our toes and let us rejoice in a love of the world we live in.

From Charlie Brown, who always came back for more, let us learn to trust even if we get hurt on occasion, learn to dream even if the rest of the world laughs and learn to get back on the pitcher’s mound again even after we get hit so hard that it knocks us over.

And finally from Snoopy, let us love our meals, let us love our homes , let us always dance with joy and always, always let us dream great things.

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Purim!

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A Great Loss

The news of the death of Rabbi David Hartman, zichrono livracha, may his memory be for a blessing, is sad news indeed and I wish to extend condolences to the family and to the students of this great teacher.

I am not going to go to great lengths to write words of tribute to Rabbi Hartman because many words have been and will be written by those who knew him more closely. I will simply explain why the loss of this Orthodox Rabbi strikes so many of us so deeply.

Rabbi Hartman was an orthodox Jew. Yet, he understood the limits of halacha, Jewish law. He realized that Jewish observance  without a sense of common decency, without spirituality and vision was meaningless, in fact dangerous. And, he recognized as so few it seems do today that there are many paths to Judaism, many paths to Torah and that those outside of “Orthodoxy” have so much to contribute to our people and to Torah.

His determination to seek  a way to observe Jewish law while remaining an active participant in this world rather than to use it as a means to distance ourselves from the world; a way to encourage a vision of a greater Jewish people and a greater world rather than for Jewish law to be used as a province of the elite few; a way to stand by principles of faith and obligation while encouraging those from different streams of Judaism to act according to their conscience and faith while deepening their study of Torah is his greatest legacy.

I spent two weeks at the Hartman Institute in 2005 studying Torah with Rabbi Hartman, his son Rabbi Donniel Hartman and the faculty of the Institute. It was an unforgettable two weeks and I look forward to participating in such a program in the future. The work that the Hartman Institute continues to do in so many areas, including the Engaging Israel project which we participated in at Beth Israel last year will continue to add to Rabbi Hartman’s legacy.

I ask all of you to take the time to read the obituaries and tributes which will appear in the days ahead in Jewish media throughout the world. We have lost a treasure at a time when we so deeply need the vision that Rabbi Hartman provided. May all of his students continue to advance his work and may our people grow in Torah, in kindness, in respect for each other and commitment to a better world.

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A Question Sure to Draw Controversy

Now that football season is over (actually it ended for me during the 3rd quarter of the AFC championship game), it’s time to think about baseball. What better time of year for the baseball fan? Every team is in first place. You close your eyes and imagine green grass and warm sun. And, for me, I think of the few days Avi and I spent at spring training a few years ago- one of the best trips I have ever taken. (A bit of advice, if you want to go to spring training and your team opens its training facilities to the public, plan your trip for the last days before the exhibition games start- walking around the Red Sox training camp while the players were practicing was one of the biggest thrills of my life).

But, when the talk turns to baseball, there are some questions which are bound to cause disagreement: whether so and so should be in the hall of fame, whether the game is better today than 30 years ago, whether the designated hitter “experiment” should be abandoned? All of these and many others have started their share of arguments over the years. But, the one that really gets people agitated is: “What’s your favorite baseball movie?”

I love that question because unlike most questions that start with: “What’s your favorite…”, I have an unequivocal answer for this one. No hemming and hawing, no “well, it depends on whether…”, I have an absolute favorite baseball movie and since the day I saw it for the first time in 1992, I never have wavered. It isn’t The Natural, it isn’t Field of Dreams, it isn’t Bull Durham and it isn’t the Bad News Bears or any one of the others. My far and away favorite baseball movie of all time is A League of Their Own.

In fact, I would rank that movie among my 10 favorites of all time. Directed by Penny Marshall with a tremendous cast which included Tom Hanks, Madonna, Geena Davis, Garry Marshall, Rosie O’Donnell, and Jon Lovitz, the film is based on the “All American Girls Professional Baseball League” which began during World War II and continued for a few year after. The movie is heartwarming, poignant, funny and, best of all, it really is about baseball.

This morning, I read an obituary for a woman named Lavonne Paire Davis who died on Saturday. She was a star in the league and was a consultant to Penny Marshall for the film. Just reading her obit made me want to go back and watch the movie again.

I’m not a movie reviewer but I have never seen a movie which captured the heart and soul of the game I love and placed it in a context that was believable and real as this film did. If you’ve never seen it, I defy you to try to watch the “world series” scenes without finding them as exciting as any world series game in recent years and I defy you to try to watch the final scene in the movie without a tear.

I’ve become somewhat frustrated with baseball over the last few years (except for 2004 and 2007 of course) because the games have grown interminably long, the whole steroids business is horribly upsetting and free agency and salaries are of course ridiculously out of control. So, I look for opportunities to find the “pure” game I love with the characters and the situations which have made baseball the American pastime. I have found it in many places including, and most clearly, in Penny Marshall’s film. If you haven’t seen it, a cold, snowy winter day is the best time to watch it. If you have seen it, go watch it again and it will prove that Tom Hanks’ great line was wrong. There is crying in baseball.


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