SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Rabbi Michael Friedland was eating in a downtown restaurant one day when he noticed his waitress’s arm.
The tattooed Hebrew letters caught his attention, recalls Friedland, rabbi of Sinai Synagogue.
It turned out that the young woman wasn’t Jewish, or Hebrew. Out of respect for a relative who had been Jewish, she told Friedland, she researched Hebrew for sentimental words such as “mother” to imprint onto her arm.
Traditionally, Judaism has interpreted Leviticus 19:28 as banning tattoos: “You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor imprint any marks on you; I am the Lord.”
With the popularity of tattoos, Friedland and other rabbis have more closely examined what the passage means and its historical context.
Rabbi Eric Siroka of Temple Beth-El researched the topic after a parent at an earlier synagogue he served asked about it.
“Over the course of history, the thought was that if you had a tattoo, you couldn’t be buried in a Jewish cemetery,” Siroka says.
Historically, too, tattoos were connected with those practicing idolatry.
Although Siroka says he would still discourage any marring of the body, tattoos do not seem to be any more serious than other less-than-respectful things we might do to our bodies.
Saint Mary’s College religious studies professor Joseph Incandela says he’s not aware of any biblical pronouncements with “the force” of the Leviticus words that would prohibit tattoos among Catholics.
“Probably the closest one can come within the Christian Scriptures is I Corinthians 6:19, which says that the body is the temple of the Holy Spirit,” he wrote in an email.
Adding to the disapproval of earlier generations was the Holocaust, when Jews in concentration camps were assigned numbers, tattooed on their arms.
Both recognizing the changing mores. Friedland is puzzled by those who choose tattoos that don’t relate to their own heritage.
“Why would you borrow from somebody else’s culture?” he asks rhetorically.