11/20/2012 10:46 am ET Updated Jan 20, 2013

Jews and Tattoos: The Body Wholly

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 to my husband under the huppa whole and unpierced.

The united family front was disturbed by my daughter while still a pre-teen. Every girl in the world was getting 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 how bad it could be if our biblical foremothers were lavished with ear and noserings by their beloveds? My husband wasn't convinced: maybe our foremothers wore clip-ons!

As tenacious as any of her still-necked clan, my daughter wouldn't let go. "Hasidim pierce their girls' ears when they're born. Famous Yeshiva rabbis let their daughters do it. Why do we have to be holier than everyone else?" Her father was unmoved, so she smiled sweetly and changed tack. "What if I publish an essay proving it's permitted?"

Ahhh! My daughter had hit upon the charm. Also common to both my family and my husband's is the predilection to print monographs for every occasion: joyous, tragic and humdrum. Here was the next generation offering to add to the resume; my husband promptly agreed to the proposal.

For months we scrutinized together 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. That is, unless the wound is inflicted in a humiliating manner, which is always forbidden.

In among the flurry of sources, my daughter found an article by her 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, but my daughter decided that not getting her ears pierced wouldn't cause her the degree of anguish required in the article. She conceded that an undecorated ear is not a deformity.

The exercise was my daughter's first in legal analysis and rhetoric. She concluded her research with a PowerPoint presentation to the family. In it she argued 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. My husband bowed to the strength of her arguments.

Together my daughter and I hiked to the surgeon that offered the safest piercing procedure. Any medical inoculation she would have approached with well-nurtured hysteria, but this was a fully researched, self-inflicted cut and she endured it without a sound.

The wound had healed in time for my daughter's bat mitzvah, and 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. Those jewels have been supplanted by more serious decorations, such as the attractive grade point average on her report card. Recently she read us an article she wrote for the college newspaper on the tattooing fashion, featuring an Israeli student at her college who has elected to embellish a significant portion of her body with permanent engravings.

The student interviewed saved up many months for her tattoos, rewarding her arrival on the Dean's List with her first engraving. In Israeli-style English, she explains, "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 reflects a central element of this woman's identity. "In some ways getting a tattoo is like wounding yourself, but at the same time, they make me feel more complete," she said. "They are a beautiful series that have serious thought and meaning behind them."

As my daughter read the article aloud to the family, I began to cringe. Tattooing is unquestionably forbidden in the Torah, and there are still people alive whose arms are carved with the Nazis' enumeration of our destruction.

"I wish I hadn't pierced my ears," my daughter shuddered as she concluded her reading. "Why is a pierce on the earlobe different from any other self-mutilation?" I raised my brows and rose to find the essay she had researched in her youth, but stopped myself.

No need to remind the repentant of her blemished past.

Viva Hammer is a Washington partner in an international consulting firm and a Research Associate at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute, Brandeis University.