September 7, 2010
Is Victoria Beckham’s Hebrew tattoo kosher?
From the nape of her neck to just below her collarbone, Victoria Beckham has a famous line of Hebrew scripture inked onto her skin: “Ani ledodi vedodi li haro’eh ba’shoshanim.”
The verse, from the Hebrew poem Shir Ha’shirim, or in English, Song of Songs, means “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine, who grazes among lilies.” Beckham’s Jewish-inspired body art (her husband, soccer star David Beckham identifies as “half Jewish” since his maternal grandfather was Jewish) was noted in a recent New York Times profile of Mrs. Beckham and her burgeoning fashion line.
This tattoo, as NYT writer Ruth LaFerla portrays it, is more than just a meaningful emblem: it is an act of marital commitment.
There is a well-known Jewish taboo regarding tattoos – namely, that Jews shouldn’t get them—which makes the idea of a Hebrew tattoo seem nothing short of an oxymoron. But it is striking that the Beckhams chose to “cement” their marital vows with a permanent reminder from the Jewish tradition. And the choice to ink their flesh with a line of Hebrew poetry seems to signal something different than, say, a tattoo of a butterfly. Which made me wonder, in the eyes of Judaism: Are all tattoos created equal?
“There’s a mishna [in Makkot] that states that anybody who puts a lasting mark on their body is culpable, meaning they’ve committed a sin,” Rabbi Aaron Alexander, Associate Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University explains. “But then another rabbi comes in and says the only way you can become culpable is if you write the name of God.”
The prohibition against Jews getting tattoos comes from a verse in Leviticus that forbids gashing one’s flesh: “You shall not make gashes in your flesh for the dead, or incise any marks on yourselves; I am the Lord.” The juxtaposition of the law with ‘I am the lord’ is the reason some interpret the prohibition to mean ‘tattoos are fine, as long as they are not God’s name.’ The provenance of the prohibition, according to Alexander, is also related to ancient idolatrous practices of tribes surrounding the Israelites. But primarily, the prohibition against permanently altering the body is related to the concept of b’tselem elokim – that human beings are created in the image of God, and that such pristine perfection should not be altered.
“That’s the piece we deal with as moderns,” Alexander says. “What does it mean to see yourself in the image of God; to understand that your body is a gift from God, on loan from God? Judaism tells us, ‘you’re beautiful; there’s god in you’ – regardless of how society views a person—and if you see yourself that way, then your appreciation of that fact means you do not need to add human art. Your body itself is art.”
Just to be clear, Victoria Beckham is not Jewish, but her impulse to ink—and to do so Jewishly, is something plenty of Jews either do or desire. Even though Alexander would not condone Jews tattooing, he does allow that in another sense, body art can be seen as a godly act.
“I believe many people tattoo themselves in order to become part of the artistic nature that is the body, in service of the fact that their bodies are b’tzelem elokim and they want to be in partnership with that creative expression. In that sense, I get it and I’ve seen beautiful tattoos.”
Alexander added that rabbinic awareness of the dogmas surrounding b’tzelem elokim led to some of Judaism’s bodily practices like wearing tallit (prayer shawls) and wrapping tefillin (phylacteries). But those rituals, while related to the holiness of the body, are time-bound and transient. And the interesting purpose of Beckham’s tattoo, in particular, is that it exists precisely to connote permanence: a permanent mark to reinforce the aspirational permanence of marriage.
A noble aim, indeed; but not really a kosher one:
“While her intentions may be beautiful and meaningful and powerful in the context of her relationship, there has to be a place where we say, ‘This is sacred in and of itself,’” Alexander says. “My understanding of Jewish tradition would suggest she find a way to live out ‘Ani l’dodi’ so much so, it’s as if it is tattooed on her at all times, while keeping the perfect body God gave her intact.”
Well, at least on the point of Victoria Beckham’s perfect body, Rabbi Alexander’s assertion is beyond dispute.