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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.; [email protected]

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Nachum on December 17, 2012 at 1:35 am (Reply)
Good piece. But while I'm not the biggest fan of any piercings myself, I can reply two things to your daughter:

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.
Y on December 17, 2012 at 2:40 am (Reply)
Turnus Rufus the wicked asked Rabbi Akiva, "Whose deeds are better? Those of G-d or those of humans?"
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.
Eliyahu Konn on December 17, 2012 at 6:23 am (Reply)
Clip on earrings don't inflict a wound or change the topography of the body. My five year old has little stick on jewels. They stay put until they are peeled off. Sounds like an opportunity to turn the world back with non-invasive earrings.

Concerning tattoos, they are clearly potentially dangerous and never have been allowed by those understanding Torah.
Ovadya on December 17, 2012 at 6:25 am (Reply)
In the Torah (Chumash)they wore earrings and noserings, What are you talking about?
sylvia herskowitz on December 17, 2012 at 6:32 am (Reply)
with all due respect, ear piercing is not exactly a wound--but rather a fairly simple procedure. In some very pious European chassidic families, like mine, it was almost de rigeur-- something all growing girls did so they could wear earrings--like their biblical forbears. My American father, z"l,refused to let my mother pierce my ears as a small child, but then he was also against vaccination, one of the trends of the nineteen twenties, and my mother told me she had to spirit me out of the house to get it done.
A.Schreiber on December 17, 2012 at 10:56 am (Reply)
Whether its symptomatic of a) female learning to focus on isolated sugyot rather than overall depth of knowledge; b) a pre-teen's lack of sophistication; or c) modern-orthodox methods of learning - I dont know. But I do know this: A "monograph", complete with power point presentation, to conclude that ear piercing is permitted, is riddiculous.
Ken Besig on December 17, 2012 at 12:56 pm (Reply)
If this is what Judaism has been reduced to, a controversy over pagan "body art", then may Heaven have mercy on us!
    David Z on January 24, 2013 at 7:05 pm (Reply)
    The simplest response to someone saying they are asur is to point out the (nose) piercings that are found in the tora.
Esther Danziger on December 17, 2012 at 5:15 pm (Reply)
So strange that the readers don't seem to understand that Viva is addressing exactly the issues they raise (1) piercing of any kind is an issue (2) according to some authorities it is overcomeable (3) although this isn't clear and there is grounds to forbid it (4) the fact that lots of people did it is somewhat irrelevant. Lots of people do lots of things that are forbidden. People used to marry off their minor daughters - it's permitted but is it right????
Yael Rivka on December 19, 2012 at 3:07 am (Reply)
Viva makes worldly observations that hit their targets with wit and veracity. Her worldliness often attracts "more learned than thou" responders who pronounce judgement very quickly. And have no wit. Her observations are about modern trends in body decoration. If ears are acceptable, and noses, how about er, less visible body parts? Is that mentioned as assur? Tattoos dangerous? People undergoing radiation therapy are tattooed for the radiation to be accurately targeted. How dangerous can that be? Quirky pieces like this deserve more than one reading, and dinner table discussion, too.

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