What should I do about my tattoos before converting?

Question: I’m from a Christian background and have been studying Judaism for two years in order to convert. I keep kosher and observe Shabbat but I have a problem. I have tattoos. I understand they are forbidden but what can I do since they are a permanent part of my body?

Rabbi Naftali Brawer

Naftali Brawer is rabbi at Borehamwood and Elstree United Synagogue.

The prohibition against tattooing one’s flesh is found in Leviticus 19:28: “You shall not makes gashes in your flesh for the dead, or incise any marks on your selves: I am the Lord.” The verse forbids only permanent tattoos where dye is injected into an incision. Body paint and impermanent tattoos are not proscribed.

The basis for the Bible’s prohibition is that permanent body-marking was a prevalent practice among pagan idolaters. Additionally, Judaism sees the body as a sacred vessel for the soul and therefore it must be treated with the utmost respect. While one could argue that body art is a form of respect, Judaism sees it as unnatural and unnecessarily invasive.

Your situation is an interesting one. Since you were not Jewish at the time you had the tattoos made, it cannot be said that you violated Jewish law. The fact that you are left with a permanent mark attesting to something that you did a long time ago does not in any way diminish your right to become part of the Jewish people.

Conversion involves a clear break with one’s past and a genuine desire to start a new future. While this involves leaving behind a prior lifestyle and worldview, it does not mean that you could, or should, deny who you were beforehand. You cannot just erase previous life experiences.

If anything, you should appreciate that in some way or another, your previous experiences — whether positive or negative — have led you to take a new path by embracing Judaism. Instead of seeing the tattoo as a mark of shame see it, instead as a mark of pride indicating to you and to others just how far you have come on your spiritual quest and what you have left behind in the process.

I will conclude with the following apocryphal tale. One erev Yom Kippur a man was getting undressed in the changing room of the mikveh, the ritual bath. He glanced around self-consciously while trying to conceal the tattoo on his upper shoulder, a remnant of his wild and unorthodox youth.

An old man — a Holocaust survivor — approached him indicating the tattoo on his own forearm and he said, “You are not the only one with a past you’d rather forget. I, like you, still bear its mark. But soon it will be Yom Kippur, a day of cleansing and atonement. Let’s look to the future, together.”

Rabbi Jonathan Romain

Jonathan Romain is rabbi at Maidenhead (Reform) Synagogue.

Please do not be offended, but I laughed out aloud when I read your question: not because I dismiss your genuine concern, but because if I was to draw up a list of impediments to conversion, it might include being engaged in business fraud, or being in the midst of a bigamy case.

These are major ongoing moral failings, and while tattoos may be discouraged in the Bible, they are certainly not serious enough to prevent you becoming Jewish.

Moreover, the tattoos condemned by the original ban were carried out either as a form of self-harm as part of excessive grief over a bereavement, or they were a religious rite belonging to a pagan faith.

These are not in the same category as the ones you bear, which were probably done for decorative reasons. I also assume they are permanent and cannot be removed, otherwise that would be an easy solution.

Still, by definition, the act of conversion implies both “turning away from” a certain lifestyle and “turning towards” a new path. You cannot undo your past, either the visible bits or the invisible aspects, but what counts is the person you are now and who you wish to become.

It should also be added that converting does not mean rejecting one’s entire past — much of your life up till this point, especially your relationships, may be exceedingly good and they will continue into your Jewish journey. This applies particularly to relatives, and your new identity should not be at the cost of your family. It is important to make it clear that accepting Judaism does not mean rejecting them.

As for what is required of a convert, there are four key elements: commitment (wanting to adopt for yourself the life that Judaism has to offer); knowledge (understanding not only what it stands for, but why and its development); observance (keeping both the rituals and the values it teaches); and community (participating in Jewish life as it is lived and shared). Achieve all this, and a few squiggles on your body will be totally inconsequential.

Judaism is not a missionary faith, holding that there are many ways to God, but it is open to those who wish to convert. The fact that King David is a direct descendant from the Moabite convert Ruth is testimony to the many benefits that Jews-by-choice have brought with them.

    Last updated: 1:33pm, June 3 2010