The New International Version of Leviticus 19:28 says “do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves.” This verse is used by Jewish religious authorities and the Jewish community as a grounds for prohibiting practicing, orthodox and non-orthodox, Jews from getting tattoos. Recently, though, as tattoos become more socially accepted and the horrors of the Holocaust fade from living memory, more Jewish young people are getting tattoos that represent their faith and Jewish identity. This verse has fallen under some debate. At least in this verse, tattooing that is prohibited seems to be tattoos that were used in rituals and as expressions of mourning, which were heathen traditions.
According to scholars, Jews were borrowing the customs of pagan religions, acting like the followers of Baal, and many Jewish laws and customs were designed to separate Jews from non-believers. Some argue that contemporary Jews are permitted to get tattoos that do not have pagan meanings or are not done out of self-loathing or self-destruction. There has been no conclusive answer, although most Rabbis seem to maintain that tattoos are, in fact, against the will of God.
Many Jewish tattoos express the faith in Judaism and the traditions of the Jewish people. Jewish symbols, like the Star of David, the menorah, and tattoos in Hebrew, the language spoken by many Jews, are common. Although Jewish tattoos are seen as a sign of rebellion, against God and the Jewish faith, by many traditional Jewish communities, more and more Jews are accepting tattooing as an art form. Being Jewish is both a religious belief and a cultural identity, and the two are neither dependent upon the other or mutually exclusive.
It is possible to convert to Judaism from another religious background, and it is possible to be Jewish, from a Jewish family and brought up in the Jewish tradition, without adhering to Jewish law or following Jewish doctrine. A great many people of Jewish culture are proud of their heritage, and want to display their pride through a distinctly Jewish tattoo. Because they don't follow Judaism, there is no need to adhere to Jewish law. However, some culturally Jewish people prefer to follow Jewish traditions, like eating kosher or celebrating Hanukkah. Kosher tattoos and dreidel, a type of Jewish spinning top that can be used for games, tattoos are common. The hamsa, or hamesh, is another symbol embraced by the Jewish community, along with most of the Middle East. The hamsa is an open hand design that often features the evil eye in the center of the palm. It is a symbol of good luck and a protection charm against gossip and ill will.
Two of the main fears that often prevent Jews from getting tattoos, even if they are not practicing, is the potential Holocaust associations and the desire to be buried in a Jewish cemetery. There are a lot of myths that surround tattoos and burial in the Jewish community. Many believe that a tattoo will prevent a person from being buried in the Jewish tradition because it marks the body as sinful. However, several rabbinical sources confirm that tattoos are not grounds for rejection. A person with a tattoo, or many tattoos, can be buried in a Jewish cemetery. However, there are some cemeteries that have plots or areas specifically designated for those that adhered to Jewish laws and customs and those that lived outside of the faith. While this separation may prevent some from getting a tattoo, the ability to still be buried in sacred, Jewish cemeteries has eased the mind of many.
The Holocaust, on the other hand, is more difficult to decisively address because it is up to personal interpretation. During World War II, Jewish people interned at concentration camps, specifically Auschwitz, were often tattooed with a serial number for identification purposes. It is not uncommon to see elderly men and women that still bear these marks. In acts of defiance, memorial, and remembrance, some people have gotten their own ID numbers, often using their Social Security number. These tattoos are sometimes viewed as offensive because they trivialize the struggles of those in the Holocaust, as well as fail to recognize the fact that Holocaust victims' tattoos were forced, not voluntary. Others see the tattoos as brave, an act of defiance and a personal connection to the Jewish history.