by Tom Van Dyke
Relax. This isn't The Music Man, I'm not Professor Harold Hill, and tattoos aren't any greater threat to America than the game of pool was to River City.
But in having a bit of good clean snarky fun with the Bible in one of our comments sections, my colleague Eric Alan Isaacson unwittingly kicks over a rock and reveals a diamond, the very diamond that our life as we know it in these here United States was built on:
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."
Oy, we've heard that one before. But where did Thomas Jefferson get such an idea? Why, from tattoos, of course.
“You shall not make any gashes in your flesh for the dead or tattoo any marks upon you: I am the Lord.” Leviticus 19:28 (NRSV).
The erudite Mr. Isaacson helpfully provides a link to an "evangelical fundamentalist" at biblebelievers.com to explain the passage although it's pretty straightforward, and says what it says. No evangelicalism or fundamentalism required to suss it all out.
No tattoos, then. Why?
More informative is the link to Rabbi Alan Lucas, whom Mr. Isaacson kindly cautions us is affiliated with the Conservative branch of Judaism:
“In our day, the prohibition against all forms of tattooing regardless of their intent, should be maintained.”
Now, the article header notes that Rabbi Lucas "arrives at a conclusion very much like those reached by Reform and Orthodox authorities as well." Obviously, the rabbi's Conservative affiliation is irrelevant. So let's hear him out, then:
"In addition to the fact that Judaism has a long history of distaste for tattoos, tattooing becomes even more distasteful in a contemporary secular society that is constantly challenging the Jewish concept that we are created b'tzelem Elokim (in the image of God) and that our bodies are to be viewed as a precious gift on loan from God, to be entrusted into our care and [are] not our personal property to do with as we choose. Voluntary tattooing even if not done for idolatrous purposes expresses a negation of this fundamental Jewish perspective."
OK, OK, are we there yet? We were promised John Locke, and all we get is this boring Bible stuff. Locke famously said, "every man has a property in his own person," so he should be able to tattoo it if he wants to, eh?
So let's agreeably cut to the chase, the foundation of John Locke's arguments in his Second Treatise on Government [Chap 2, Sec 6]:
"But though this be a state of liberty, yet it is not a state of licence: though man in that state have an uncontroulable [sic] liberty to dispose of his person or possessions, yet he has not liberty to destroy himself...
The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one: and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind...that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions: for men being all the workmanship of one omnipotent, and infinitely wise maker; all the servants of one sovereign master, sent into the world by his order, and about his business; they are his property, whose workmanship they are, made to last during his, not one another's pleasure: and being furnished with like faculties, sharing all in one community of nature, there cannot be supposed any such subordination among us, that may authorize us to destroy one another, as if we were made for one another's uses, as the inferior ranks of creatures are for our's.[sic]"
(N.B.: Italics inserted for ease of skimming, [sic] inserted where 1690 spelling differs from today's.)
It is the same argument as the rabbi's, discoverable neither by the brute man nor his brute reason.
The Jewish b'tzelem Elokim goes to the first chapter of Genesis, the very beginning of the Bible, of the "Judeo-Christian" tradition, "God said, 'Let us make man in our image...'" [Also called Imago Dei in the Christian tradition, as they loved their Latin.]
"Image" need not mean that God looks like Charlton Heston or Barack Obama or Sarah Palin. What "image" must mean is that man shares an essential quality with God. What John Locke identifies before liberty and property is "life," and after we understand life---and hold it to be self-evident as God's gift of it to man---the rest naturally follows.
This is the Bible's argument. It is Jefferson's, it is Locke's. The rest is details, and many of them are admittedly troublesome. But we must start at the beginning, and Locke and Jefferson's beginning was this. From there, Locke draws liberty and equality, in quite reasonable and logical fashion.
And not to worry about the souls of the tattooed, Mr. Isaacson, even in passing fancy. As Rabbi Lucas points out, the Bible has no punishment for tattooing. It's simply a call for mindfulness and respect for the gift of your body, the gift of life, the same call for the mindfulness and respect of each other from where your "rights" truly flow. They make a conceptual whole, a fabric. We rip the fabric in two at our own peril.