Regret in the Flesh

"Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves. I am the Lord."

Leviticus 19:28

In the 1990s, there was a band called Rocket from the Crypt out of San Diego. They made a bargain with their raving fans. If you tattooed their rocket logo on your person and you flashed them a peek, you could go to every one of their concerts for free. Talk about membership rewards! The owner of a Cleveland area restaurant tried a similar offering, giving a 25% discount to lifetime diners for anyone with their signature sandwich-and-crossbones logo. He wasn’t sure many would take him seriously, but to date there are over 550 very serious customers. A young man my daughter met while volunteering at a juvenile detention center had three tattoos that were each crossed out: the names of his ex-girlfriends. I hope he finds true love soon because he might run out of space.

Jewish law forbids permanent tattoos, as we learn in the verse above. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1801-1888), a German scholar, interprets the Leviticus command specifically to refer to “…an inscription so deeply impressed into the flesh that it remains permanently.” He writes cogently of the problem of permanence in a world that is not permanent. Rabbi Hirsch interprets the problem with tattoos relevant to their use in the ancient world – and still often today. Tattoos were mourning markers, ways to remind oneself of the loss of someone special by inflicting external pain to match internal anguish, to carry a constant reminder on one’s flesh. But we usually do not need reminders of those we have loved and lost because we are constantly surrounded by reminders. Our heart remembers.

“The prohibition is so, simply expressing the loss we have sustained by wounding ourselves, inflicting pain on ourselves…” We harm our bodies like a rent in a mourning garment that “expresses our acknowledgment that the departure of the one who has died has made a ‘rent’ in the closest surroundings, the intimate world, of those left behind.” The cut in the flesh expresses that, “However dear and valuable, however important the existence of somebody else may be to us, our own importance and our own worth may never end with the end of his existence, may never even been allowed to lessen. Every person had his own importance and meaning for God in his existence here below.”

Rabbi Hirsch was worried that if we make permanent marks on our body to honor someone else, we might minimize ourselves, believing that our lives are nothing without the someone we tattooed on our person. Swept up in someone else who can no longer be with us, we would lose our independent sense of purpose. Beyond mourning, tattoos are often the ultimate emblem of regret because they represent times, fads or people in our lives who come and go. Perhaps this is why the verse ends with the dramatic flourish: “I am the Lord.” God represents eternity in contrast to marking our bodies that often represents what we care about at the moment.

The good news: the band Rocket from the Crypt just got back together after almost ten years in hiatus and their shows have been selling out. The bad news: they can no longer honor their tattoo bargain. They didn’t know just how many people had bought into this deal. It was so many more than expected. They simply cannot afford it. One tattoo artist in San Diego alone has done hundreds. Their most ardent fans are understandably disappointed because the tattoos aren’t getting them in and they are not going away.

Shabbat Shalom