On Tattoos

There are still those who don’t understand Judaism’s ban on tattoos, who find it to be an arbitrary, limiting thing, but I put it to you:

How many friends have you lost to a message or an idea, the person hollowed out to become a mere mouthpiece for some impersonal notion?

In the beginning, G-d creates the human body and the human soul to match, the former the necessary vessel to convey the latter out into a physical reality it must transform.

The body is gnawingly unspecific. It is, more or less, an equal vessel to a life of self-sacrifice and righteousness and a life of debauchery and sin. So even the righteous may be tempted to change that body to make it more specific to their purpose.

The problem is that our purposes are not souls themselves. When G-d creates everything but man, He speaks it into existence by name: “Let there be light!” When G-d creates Adam, on the other hand, it is from dust and the breath of life in his nostrils. As if to say, “Though you have a name, Adam, no name is at the root of your being.”

If the individual is G-d’s message to the world, the message is wordless and conveyed only by His hand. The body is its medium and the soul its meaning, but the word cannot, contrary to appearances, fully be read. The body is significant not for any of its properties we parse or might change, but for its unity with the soul we cannot fully parse and do not completely understand. Then we run it through photoshop.

Our purposes are things we name: people, places, things, ideas. We take our body and conform it to some ideal in a permanent fashion. Some people remove or add limbs. Others use their body as a canvas. “No graven images,” G-d told us, and in this sense empowered us, for was He not saying that even though you, human, take a particular form, it is not an “image”? But the choice is in our hands, and some choose to depart from the natural unity of body and soul that only G-d can create to make themselves into a word spoken by some foreign purpose.

The reason Jews are therefore forbidden ever fully to shave their heads is that shaving the head was an idolatrous practice. Why did idolators shave their heads?

The Chasam Sofer gives one of the most profound insights into idol worship you will ever hear. The idolaters would form their gods in their image, giving it human features as much as possible. However, they could never get hair to look real unless they attached to it actual hair that already existed. They found themselves inadequate to the task of creation. So instead, they made their idols bald and shaved themselves to match.

What limitations are we willing to place on ourselves, how much are we ready to turn the body, the word, into our conceptions in a desperate need to match? The infinite potential with which G-d alone has created me is discomforting. It is not the solid mundane streets in which we yearn to wander and create our own little meanings in accordance with our egos. It reflects nothing of what we see to be the appropriate individuality, the thing that actually makes us special. We desperately want to be something. And by this we mean, something we can create, something we can properly understand.

So we remake ourselves in the image of an idea. Is anything more popular? All it costs is the Divine individual.