Thursday, August 25, 2011


Parents tell their teenagers, “You can’t be buried in a Jewish cemetery if you get a tattoo.”  This often repeated tale is meant to dissuade young adults from following the example of their peers and engraving a tattoo on their bodies.  To be honest, the tale is not true.

Tattooing is of course contrary to Jewish tradition, but it would not by itself constitute a reason for the denial of burial rites.  Perhaps people suggest it would do so because it is a visible sign, even following death, that the person was not observant of Jewish law.  But some people observe many Jewish traditions.  Others observe few.  The denial of burial for any person would show a supreme lack of compassion in the face of tragedy.

Interestingly the biblical verses prohibiting tattooing connect tattooing to mourning rituals.  Our Torah portion states: “You are the children of the Lord your God.  You shall not gash yourselves or shave the front of your heads because of the dead.  For you are a people consecrated to the Lord your God; the Lord your God chose you from among all other peoples on earth to be His treasured people.” (Deuteronomy 14:1-2)

Apparently in ancient times tattooing was associated with mourning.  According to biblical scholars removing of hair and gashing the flesh until blood runs were common mourning rituals.  People believed that these acts had an effect on the ghost of the deceased.  Or perhaps these acts were performed as self-punishment to assuage feelings of guilt.  Judaism however counsels that we tear our garment rather than our flesh.  In addition Jewish custom advises men to refrain from shaving when mourning.  We are commanded to do the opposite of what our neighbors do.

I understand that tattooing for the dead is a powerful emotional response to grief.  People inscribe a name or a symbol on their body as a sign of mourning.  It is especially common among soldiers.  It is an understandable impulse.  Mourners promise themselves that they will never forget, that they must never forget.  Inscribing the memory on their bodies fulfills this impulse.  It as if to say, “Now I will always remember.”  Judaism insists however that memories must be built on stories and words.

Again and again the Torah seeks to distinguish its traditions from those of Israel’s neighbors.  Tattooing was viewed as something connected with idolatry.  Moreover the Jewish tradition believes that the human body is created in God’s image.  We are to care for the body because it is a reflection of the divine.  We therefore do not defame the body in any way.  The Talmud rules that we are therefore forbidden to inscribe a permanent tattoo on the body, although there is some debate as to whether or not the prohibition only applies to a tattoo with God’s name.

I often think that in addition to the tradition’s reasons we should give weight to modern Jewish history.  During the Holocaust Jews were of course forcibly tattooed with numbers.  We should therefore not choose to do this to ourselves.  This is what our enemies did to us.  Let us not do the same.

Parents can of course resort to tales of denying burial rites in order to convince children to obey this prohibition, but I prefer making arguments based on modern Jewish history and the Jewish value that the human body is a reflection of the divine.  Of course teenagers being teenagers they may very well not listen to such logic.  Their desire is to be like their peers.  The Torah wants us to be unlike our neighbors. 

Of course in the end the primary job of parents is to love their children.

Thursday, August 18, 2011


According to rabbinic legend a fetus knows the entire Torah when in the womb.  When the fetus is born, however, an angel kisses the baby on the lip, producing the recognized indentation, and the child forgets everything.  Now this child must spend a lifetime learning Torah.  It is a curious legend.  The rabbis imagined that we begin life knowing everything but then forget.

Years ago as my grandmother withered away in a nursing home, we watched her mind become increasingly vacant.  Her body remained strong years beyond her mind’s forgetfulness.  On the day that we brought her great granddaughter for a visit she attempted to bite her.  The adult had became the infant.  My young daughter looked at me with questioning eyes.  I remember especially the early years of Nana’s dementia.  She understood that she was forgetting more and more.  In fact when she learned that she would soon become a great grandmother she remarked, “What good will that be if I don’t have my mind.”  She knew that her dementia was growing increasingly worse. There grew a terror in her eyes.  And then she forgot everything.

For our Jewish tradition forgetting is a cardinal sin.  We are commanded again and again to remember: zakhor.  In this week’s portion, Ekev, Moses admonishes the people: “Remember the long way that the Lord your God has made you travel in the wilderness these past forty years, that He might test you by hardships to learn what was in your hearts: whether you would keep His commandments or not.”  (Deuteronomy 8:2)      We must remember our history, the successes and failures, but especially the trials.

My son Ari recently returned from a youth trip to Israel, Prague and Poland.  In Poland he visited the Warsaw ghetto and Auschwitz.  I was overwhelmed looking at his pictures.  Only from Ari did I come to appreciate the vast expanse of Auschwitz.  There was photograph after photograph.  There was this angle and yet another.  I had never before appreciated the vastness of the Auschwitz complex, so many buildings built only for the purpose of murder and the destruction of my people.  I have of course read many books and visited many museums.  I have looked at many photographs in these museums and books.  But only through my son’s eyes was able to comprehend that there are miles and miles of Auschwitz-Birkenau.  

Remembering is not instinctive.  Memories must be inculcated.  One can learn from others.  But remembrance is best achieved by experience.  The great historian Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi argues that Judaism believes forgetfulness is terrifying.  Zakhor, remember, we are commanded.  We must always remember the long way we have travelled.  To forget is to be that newborn infant, although touched by an angel, just beginning a lifetime of rediscovering and relearning.

We are the Jewish people because we remember.  Our future is dependent on hearing this command and regaining this terror of forgetting.  Perhaps this feeling will help us to learn more, to experience more.  I forever see it in my grandmother’s  eyes.  May the forgetfulness of her later years be my inspiration.  May my lips never again be touched by an angel.

Thursday, August 11, 2011


Every year I study a selected text with parents of upcoming b’nai mitzvah.  As many of you know this year I shared a selection from this week’s portion, the V’ahavta.  “And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might.  Take to heart these instructions which I charge you this day... (Deuteronomy 6:4-9)

In particular I explored the meaning of the line: v’shinantam l’vanecha--and you shall teach them to your children.  On the surface the meaning of this verse seems obvious.  Parents are obligated to teach their children everything, in particular Torah.  They are commanded to teach their children about their Jewish heritage.  They are instructed to teach their children values.

In Hebrew there is a common word for teach, m’lamed.  Here the Torah uses the word, shinantam.  This word derives its meaning from the Hebrew, to repeat.  Why would the Torah use the word, repeat?  I asked parents this question “Why would the Torah command that we repeat these words to our children?”  Are we to say the words of the V’ahavta over and over again to our children, and even grandchildren?

As a parent I am certain that lessons will most certainly go unheard the moment I have to repeat them  over and over again to my children.  I say over and over again, “Do your homework. Clean your room.  Call your grandparents.”  These admonitions are greeted with nonchalance and more often than not go unheeded.   Over the years I have learned that my worst parenting moments are when I resort to repeating myself.  In that moment I am the only one who is listening to my words.

Then what could the Torah intend?  If repetition is the worst teaching method then what could this unusual word choice mean?  The Torah can not be wrong.  An insight must be hidden in its words.  This is what I have determined.  The best lessons are those that our children see us do repeatedly.  Those actions that they see us do are the best Torah we can offer our children.  This is what will prove most lasting.

This is what the Torah means by its words, “Repeat them to your children.”  The best teaching is  what our children see us do, over and over again.  If you want your children to be generous, give tzedakah.  If you want your children to be learned, then let them see you read and even take classes.  If you want your children to be committed to their health then let them see you exercise.  If you want them to find Judaism meaningful then bring Judaism into your own lives.

Over and over, again and again, this is what our children must see us do.  They discern what is most important by observing what we do.  “V’shinantam l’vanecha!”

I look forward to sharing a new text with the upcoming parents of our b’nai mitzvah class of 5772!

Thursday, August 4, 2011


For some time after the start of text messaging between father and daughter I believed “LOL” meant “Lots Of Love” rather than “Laugh Out Loud.” To my mind “Lots Of Love” made far more sense. And so in this age of abbreviated slang I find myself lost and out of touch with my daughter. Perhaps that is part of the purpose. Youth always develop words and sayings that cast the older generation outside. Parents struggle to understand their children.

This week’s Torah portion is the first portion in the last book of the Torah, Devarim. It opens with the following statement: “These are the words (devarim) that Moses addressed to all Israel on the other side of the Jordan…” (Deuteronomy 1:1) The setting for this final book is Moses’ last speech to the people. Moses is getting old and is about to die. The mantle of leadership will soon be handed over to Joshua. The people are about to enter the land of Israel.

The generation who was enslaved in Egypt has died in the wilderness. Moses’ audience is now the new generation, those people born in freedom. They are the youthful generation who has only known the wilderness and its freedoms. Moses retells the history of their people, the Jewish people. He recounts their successes and failures. He reminds the youth of their obligations and enumerates the laws given in the Torah’s prior books.

Moses reiterates these commandments—at least least that is how Deuteronomy couches his words. Yet of the hundred laws detailed in the Book of Deuteronomy only thirty are found in the Torah’s prior books. Why would Moses frame his words as though they were not new? Why would he think it better to cast new ideas in old garments?

In so doing Moses suggests that this situation in fact requires nothing new. It has been seen and heard before, he believes. But this young generation will live in its own land. They will no longer wander. The generation reared only in freedom, the generation who knew only the vastness of wandering the wilderness, will indeed require many new laws to live their lives in a sovereign land.

Moses believes that the new must be informed by the old. Still Moses struggles to communicate this truth with the youth. In every age we struggle to communicate, to teach, to impart to the younger generation. This very tension exists in our own day, in each of our homes, in each of our lives.

This was part of Larry David’s point in the recent “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” Texting slang is not meant for grown ups. It is meant only for the youth who coin its words. Parents sound like tourists struggling to communicate in the country’s native language. It is as if we are not supposed to speak our children’s language. They of course believe that we can never be informed, native speakers. They think, theirs is the language of the freedoms of wilderness. Ours are the words of enslavement, of obligations and laws.

I am left with more questions. How can we communicate the truths that we learned through our own years of struggle and wandering? How can we beseech our children to abide by what we know to be important? I still believe that even the newest situation and circumstance can be informed by the old. How can the generations speak to each other? In Deuteronomy we witness Moses offering poems, to cajole his followers as well as losing his temper, struggling and stammering, to communicate essential truths with the future generation.

And there the problem of communicating between the generations becomes most apparent. The elders either sound like foreigners in their own native land, stammering to speak the words of a future generation or angry, unheeded outcasts, who appear to stubbornly cling to the past. I wish it were as simple as saying with Moses’ concluding words, “Remember the days of old. Consider the years of ages past. Ask your [parents], they will inform you. Your elders, they will tell you…” (Deuteronomy 32:7)

But the reader forgets. We do not know if the Israelite youth listened. Such is the framework for the Book of Deuteronomy.

This is as well the framework of our lives and our goals as parents and teachers. LYA!