The Whole Body
My rabbinic father-in-law and my lay leader mother agree on one thing: no body piercing. Ears, nose, and bellybutton, all are sacred property on loan from God. No girl in either my family or my husband's had her ears pierced in childhood, although one girl on each side did make the cut during her rebellious teens. I was not one of the latter: my father relinquished me under the huppah whole and unpierced.
This united family front was disturbed by my daughter while she was still a pre-teen. Every girl in the world was getting pierced earrings, she claimed; she wanted them, too. Her father's blood pressure rose visibly whenever she raised the topic. I attempted to avert a battle, asking him, how bad it could be if our biblical foremothers were lavished with ear and nose rings by their beloveds? Her father wasn't convinced. Maybe our foremothers wore clip-ons.
As tenacious as any of her stiff-necked clan, my daughter wouldn't let go. "Hasidim pierce their little girls' ears when they're born," she said. "Famous Yeshiva rabbis let their daughters do it. Why do we have to be holier than everyone else?" Her father was still unmoved. So, she smiled sweetly and changed tack: "What if I publish an essay proving that it's permitted?"
Ahhh! My daughter had hit upon the charm. Also common to our family, on both sides, is a predilection to print a monograph for every occasion, joyous, tragic, or humdrum. Here was the next generation offering to add to the family resumé. My daughter's father promptly agreed to the proposal.
For months, together, we scrutinized the Jewish law against wounding. It is certainly forbidden, we learned, to injure anyone; and a person may not wound her own body any more than anyone else's. But if the victim gives prior consent, or the self-wounding is voluntary, there are venerable sources permitting it—unless the wound is inflicted in a humiliating manner, which is always forbidden.
In fact, among the flurry of sources, my daughter found an article by her very own rabbinic grandfather, permitting plastic surgery, despite the clear dangers, if performed to repair a disfigurement that causes a person to shun society. A promising precedent, it seemed; but my daughter decided that not getting her ears pierced wouldn't cause her the degree of anguish required by the article. She conceded that an undecorated ear is not a deformity.
The exercise was my daughter's first in legal analysis and rhetoric. At the end of it, she made a PowerPoint presentation to the family. She argued to us that if she brought a wound upon her own ears, it would be well within the law, since only fanatics could claim that the procedure is humiliating in process or outcome.
Her father bowed to the strength of her arguments. Together, my daughter and I hiked to the surgeon who seemed to offer the safest piercing procedure. If this had been a visit for any other medical purpose, like a vaccination, she would have approached it with a well-nurtured hysteria. But this was a fully researched, self-inflicted cut. She endured it without a sound.
The wound had healed in time for my daughter's bat mitzvah. She received a shower of earrings as multitudinous as the sweets rained on a bar mitzvah boy at the end of his Torah reading. Shelves in her room had to be cleared for a storefront-full. Every day she wore a different color.
It's been several years now, and most of the time my daughter goes forth earring-free. Recently she read to us an article she wrote for her college newspaper on the fashion for tattooing. It featured an interview with an Israeli student at her college who has embellished a significant portion of her body with permanent engravings.
The student who was interviewed had saved up for many months to pay for her tattoos; her first engraving was made to reward her arrival on the dean's list. In Israeli-style English, she explained herself: "If I'm asked, 'Why did you put so much money on body ink?' I say, 'Because I earned it; I did well in school.'" Each tattoo reflected a central element of this woman's identity. "In some ways," she said, "getting a tattoo is like wounding yourself. But at the same time, they make me feel more complete. They are a beautiful series that have serious thought and meaning behind them."
As we listened to my daughter read the article, I began to cringe. Tattooing is unquestionably forbidden in the Torah, and there are people still alive whose arms are carved with the Nazis' enumeration of our destruction. As she finished reading, my daughter said, "I wish I hadn't pierced my ears. Why is a pierce on the earlobe different from any other self-mutilation?"
I started to get up to look for the essay she had written to the contrary almost a decade before, but I stopped myself. Al tomar l'ba'al teshuvah, "zekhor ma’asekha harishonim": No need to remind the repentant of her blemished past.
Viva Hammer is a Washington tax lawyer and a Research Associate at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute, Brandeis University. www.vivahammertax.com; [email protected]
Rabbi Akiva answered, "Those of humans are better." Turnus Rufus asked, "Behold the heaven and the earth. Can you make anything more beautiful than them?"
I used to think like you. But now I now that you can beautify the human body in the permitted ways.
Concerning tattoos, they are clearly potentially dangerous and never have been allowed by those understanding Torah.
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1. Ear piercing is not assur.
2. Society accepts it. By "society" I consciously exclude any perversions visited on us in the last few decades.