Once a month at our family Shabbat service we ask families to submit questions in advance in what, in lieu of a sermon, is our ‘So now you know’ slot. It’s great to see what kinds of questions arise. Sometimes it is seeking explanations for why certain rituals look the way they do; sometimes it is seeking an understanding of how to interpret a particular story or text in our tradition; often it is looking to us as Rabbis to help our congregants navigate between tradition and modernity, especially at times when the logic of one of our traditions seems less clear.
This past month I was asked to address the questions of tattoos in Jewish tradition. This included, of course, the question as to the truth of the myth that a tattoo denies one burial in a Jewish ceremony. While I can’t vouch for the individual policies of specific burial societies and grounds, there is certainly no halachah that denies burial of a Jew in a Jewish cemetery on these grounds. Just as we don’t deny burial to someone for their lack of observing another of the commandments found in the Torah, such as observing Shabbat or refraining from eating non-kosher animals or fish.
I shared the historical evolution of the source and interpretation of the Torah that led to a Jewish ban on tattoos throughout the ages. These are reviewed concisely elsewhere on this site.
But then I raised some contemporary examples that demonstrate the complexities of navigating tradition and modernity in today’s world where, rather than providing answers, I offered my congregants the invitation to discuss as families how they felt about the following examples:
1) A man wishes to honor the memory of his father, a survivor of the Holocaust. Rather than tattooing his father’s number that was permanently inscribed in his skin in the concentration camps, the son chooses to have the number 6,000,000 tattooed on his arm. It is his way of never forgetting.
2) A young adult, as a sign of pride in her Jewish identity, chooses to have the Hebrew letters that spell Chai, meaning ‘life’ tattooed just above her heart. For her, it is a sign of her connection to her people and to the land of Israel – Am Yisrael Chai – the people of Israel still live.
3) A man, upon reconnecting with his sense of Jewish identity, community, and recommitting to Jewish learning, decides to have his Hebrew name tattooed on his shoulder as an outward sign of his return to his faith.
How are we to respond to these stories? Are these well intended but misguided choices? Would not a necklace or a bracelet with the same words have sufficed? Or are we living at a different time? A time when our study of the subject reveals that the origins of the law – a prohibition against idolatry – clearly do not hold in these cases. For those who are not bound by the halachic process, where later rabbinic positions are not regarded as the final word on how we observe today, the landscape of decision-making is clearly different to what it once was. We know that many Jews continue to observe and celebrate based on the additional criteria of personal meaning, and these three examples are saturated with such meaning.
I don’t have easy answers. I believe there are Jewish ways to explore the questions. And, as I reminded those in my congregation last Friday, we can all look back at photos of ourselves from past decades and regret some of the fashion choices we made. The good news is that most of us have the luxury of being able to change our clothes and update our hairstyles quite easily. Removing a tattoo is a much more costly and involved process, so there are still plenty of good reasons to pause for a good, long time before proceeding down that path, even if the threat of banishment from a Jewish cemetery isn’t one of them.
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It is that time of year again in the life of the academic environment. During the course of several years relationships are cultivated and built and friendships deepened. You know in the back of your mind that at some point people will part ways and move in different directions. The university is utterly unique in its development of serious, passionate and meaningful temporary community. It is so meaningful that the reality of its transience escapes from the mind during the course of the several years you are all together. Yet, the finality of late May and early June start slowly creeping up on you and finally they arrive and you need to embrace the end and begin the process of saying goodbye.
How do Jews say goodbye? The Oxford English Dictionary places the origins of the word goodbye as a contraction of “God be with you,” with its usage dating to the 1600s. One can imagine a person turning to their fellow unsure if they would ever see them again as they departed for an uncertain voyage and summoning up their courage and their faith utter “God be with you.” This conveys a sense of closure and of finality.
In contrast, when we turn to the traditional statement uttered by Jews upon completion of study of a sacred text, and we ritualize a form of goodbye to that text, we recite Hadran Alach, we will return to you. A goodbye is never final in our lifelong engagement with Torah. We may have completed that chapter or that tractate and we may be moving on to a new chapter or a new tractate far removed from the subject matter we just completed but when that time comes to part ways, we hopefully and prayerfully say, we will return to you, Hadran Alach.
Perhaps it is worthwhile to explore the ways in which this traditional expression can be applied to moments of departure from our friends, colleagues, students and loved ones. If every moment of human interaction and every relationship nurtured is a journey in deepening our own life wisdom and experience then each completion of a time in the trajectory of a relationship is not that far removed from a completion of our interaction and engagement with Torah, which continuously deepens and transforms our lives.
When we say goodbye to a person we are not wholly leaving them and they are not wholly leaving us. The experiences shared and the lessons learned together will remain with both people throughout the days of their lives. We have the opportunity to return to those experiences and lessons at any point we wish to. Furthermore, the blessing of our ever-connected world enables us to quite actually return to the person whenever we wish through the multiple technological methods. The departure does not need to be final.
This year during graduation season my feeling of Hadran Alach is only increased as not only will I watch with joy and pride as the Class of 2012 graduates in just a few short weeks, but I too will be transitioning and moving from my position here at Harvard to a new life and a new community in Denver, Colorado. To all my students, colleagues and friends in this vibrant, intellectually and spiritually rich community: Hadran Alach, my prayer and hope is that I will return to you and you will return to me throughout the years and decades to follow.
Before I could read and write in English, I spoke Yiddish. At age 3 I learned the Hebrew alef-bet alongside the English alphabet. Together they remain by my side, right to left and left to right. This summer while in Israel I will continue my love affair with Hebrew and study yet again all the cool new phrases and lingo that I have missed since my last visit five years ago.
In my sixth decade, I continue teaching the holy Hebrew tongue from scratch to my budding bar/bat mitzvah students. I chant the Sh’ma and the V’ahavta with them and I empower them to decode the mysteries in all those final letters and strange vowels that play upon our gutteral abilities. Some Americans can do it better than others, but most struggle with a more perfect “chet.” Each one of them succeeds in getting close to their Hebrew heritage.
Some parents ask me again and again: “Can my child have a bar mitzvah without learning Hebrew? Hebrew is such a barrier. It takes too much time to learn. They’ll never use it again. I hated learning it myself during Hebrew school. Why put the pressure on them? ”
Ah, yes, the Hebrew controversy yet again. Why Hebrew?
I listen and I empathize for there is truth in everything they say. And then there is another truth: The veracity that the Jews have a special relationship with this ancient language with its venerable sounds. Hebrew is the best kept spiritual secret of the Jewish people.
Classical Hebrew is used for prayer or study in Jewish communities around the world. The language is attested from the 10th century BCE to the late Second Temple period, after which the language developed into Mishnaic Hebrew. Modern Hebrew is spoken by most of the eight million people in Israel, and it is one of the official languages of the country, along with Arabic. As a foreign language it is studied by Jews and students of Judaism and Israel, by archaeologists and linguists specializing in the Middle East and its civilizations, by theologians, and by Christian seminarians.
To learn Hebrew is to tap into a resource that offers more than just the acquisition of knowledge. Hebrew connects the Jewish child with a historical telescope that reaches beyond our insular present. Putting sounds and words together creates a jigsaw puzzle of revelations. Like a mathematical logarithm, when they figure out how to read the most familiar of prayers, a light sparks inside of them.
The child delights in himself/herself when upon entering the synagogue they can read from the siddur that only a few months ago looked like a Chinese manuscript from a disappearing dynasty. They embrace this “adult” practice. This mandatory mitzvah to learn the Hebrew language, one prayer at a time, is magical, mystical and memorable.
I teach Hebrew by design. God’s design.