I shouldn’t have been surprised that a self-described very cultural Jew seeking advice on how to behave Jewishly would turn to the New York Times Magazine’s ethicist column (3/7/21) for guidance. But I must admit the exchange caught my attention.
The questioner is a college student seeking a way to bond with peers at a time of pandemic. Some fellow students on her swim team have suggested bonding by joining them in getting tattoos. She hesitates because it has been “drilled into” her that Jews shouldn’t get tattoos. She was taught that tattoo would preclude burial in a Jewish cemetery, but has recently learned that is not true Although she has “never been religious”, she nevertheless hesitates because “it feels very taboo.”
It’s not clear from the question what answer she’s looking for. Is she seeking to salve her conscience for breaking this “taboo”? Or does she want an excuse that will give her the courage to stand up to her peers? And why turn to a non-Jewish ethicist for guidance on whether she should follow what she sees as a Jewish “taboo” (instead of, say a rabbi, a counsellor, or even a family member)?
Ambiguous as the question was, the ethicist’s answer was even more confusing. He began by telling a story of his father being circumcised in early adolescence though it was against his Ashanti tradition — a tradition that subsequently “seem[s] to have relaxed with time.” He opines (without mentioning a source) that “[r]abbinic scholars disagree” about tattoos and counsels his questioner that “your way of being Jewish is very much something you have a say in.” He balances that encouragement by suggesting that “our beliefs, values and preferences will never be fully coherent,” adding that “[i]f the ink doesn’t sit well with you, you shouldn’t think twice about giving it a pass.”
It’s worth noting what the ethicist’s answer does not contain. For someone who is culturally Jewish, the traditional proscription of tattoos might be reinforced by the Nazis’ use of them to number concentration camp inmates, a factor that apparently doesn’t occur to the either the ethicist or his questioner. Even more surprising, the supposed ethicist does not suggest that the questioner consider the feelings of the parents who have “drilled into” her this proscription before undertaking to violate it in such a permanent and obvious way, or even to call them before acting (I assume she has a cell phone) to find out why they feel so strongly. Why the ethicist ignores the only real ethical issue presented by the question is unclear, unless his perspective is that each individual must act on his or her own desires and owes nothing to his or her family of origin.
This exchange demonstrates the inadequacy of cultural Jewishness as a foundation for the Jewish future. The ties that connect purely cultural Jews to each other and to their history are simply too weak to stand up to any strain; the slightest temptation can overcome it. The ethicist is right, of course that “our beliefs, values and preferences will never be fully coherent”; people are complex and no one is completely consistent. But there is a difference between recognizing the inevitability of inconsistency and making inconsistency an ideal.