Q. Does Judaism allow alterations to one’s skin, e.g. body piercing?
A. Tattooing is viewed negatively as its origins were idolatrous (Lev. 19:28; Maimonides, Hilchot Avodah Zarah 12:11), even though, technically speaking, it is banned only if done with indelible ink and in the form of writing (Makkot 3:6; Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De’ah 180:1).
Cosmetic surgery raises the halakhic issues of intentionally wounding oneself, risking infection, etc. Rabbinic responsa permit it for psychological or medical reasons (e.g. after an accident) but not for mere vanity, especially among males, unless the operation is common practice in the place concerned (see I Jakobovits, "Jewish Medical Ethics").
Piercing the ears was a mark of servitude in Biblical times (Ex. 21:6), yet ear- and nose-rings were often worn by women. For men to wear them would presumably infringe the prohibition against cross-dressing.
The problem today is that some people insert rings in strange parts of their person as a mark of vanity or frivolity. Even if what is done is not likely to be hazardous to health, vanity or a sense of fun is no justification for immodesty - or for "meshugass".
The basic rule is that the body is the property of the Holy One, blessed is He, and its dignity must not be compromised or its integrity invaded. Instead of overdoing the preening of the body, one should work on one’s mind, heart and soul.
The Torah portion we read this Shabbat sets out what has to be done if a spouse is suspected of "going astray".
The analogy is the situation of the Almighty and the Jew. Just as a wife should remain faithful to her husband, so a Jew must remain faithful to God.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe, in one of his books of divrei Torah, illustrates this with a Talmudic example (Sanh. 105a) which says that if a Jew goes astray, the Almighty "divorces" them, so to speak, and the errant person has no further claim on the Divine generosity.
Committing a sin against God is an indication that the sinner feels able to manage without the Almighty. However, we find in the Yom Kippur liturgy a promise that God awaits our return to Him even up to the day we die – "ad yom moto yechakkeh lo lit’shuvah".
The laws of the Nazirites turn our attention to the place of asceticism in Jewish thinking.
Ascetics in every religion keep away from pleasures, luxuries and material benefits. Living a severe life is seen as a way of keeping pure and, hopefully, receiving Divine approval.
In Judaism there have been a number of ascetic movements but on the whole the Jewish view is that whatever pleasures and joys God has planted in His world are meant for human beings to use and benefit from. The proviso is that one should not go to extremes.
A person should eat and drink but not be a glutton. They should have fun but not make life into a joke.
They should enjoy art, music and drama without turning one’s back on good taste and dignity. They should enjoy the environment but not worship it.
Found in Num. 6:22-27, the priestly blessing ("Yevarech’cha") comes in this sidra.
It is a mistake to translate the heading "Birkat Kohanim" as "The Blessing of the Priests", which gives the impression that someone (the people? God?) is blessing the priests. No: the blessing comes from God and is pronounced at His command by the priests, the kohanim.
The priests obviously deserve a commendation but so does every God-fearing Israelite.
The blessing God gives by means of the priests is both material ("bless, protect") and spiritual ("turn His face"). The balanced human being combines the material and the spiritual. That’s why the blessing ends with the word "shalom", which means completeness.
I HAVE A FLAG
The Israelite camp had a flag to identify each tribe. The flags were all eloquent.
The Midrash says that the tribe of Judah had a blue flag and its symbol was a lion; the tribe of Issachar was black and its symbol was the sun and moon; the tribe of Zebulun had a white flag and its symbol was a ship.
Apart from these things, human psychology had its own take on the tribal flags. Each Israelite spoke by means of his flag and said, "I have a place in the world because I am a member of my people and tribe. I have a unique place because I am a unique person and not a clone of anyone else. I have my own place because I am different from other people. I know my place and don’t seek to be anyone else. My place is where I belong."
THERE IS MORE WE CAN DO
In the tractate B’rachot (28b, 30a) the sages discuss the direction we should face when we prepare for prayer.
One view is that we should immediately face the direction of the Holy of Holies in the Temple.
Another view is that outside Israel a person should face the Holy Land; if in Israel one should face Jerusalem, in Jerusalem one should face the Temple and if in the Temple one should face the Holy of Holies.
Both sages obviously agree that all prayer ultimately reaches Heaven through the Holy of Holies, but why are the two views necessary?
The answer is that there is always a higher spiritual level a person can attain.
A Jew in the Diaspora must acknowledge that there is greater sanctity in Eretz Yisra’el.
In Israel one must recognise that there is greater sanctity in Jerusalem. In Jerusalem there is greater sanctity on the Temple mount.
Even if one is in the Temple, even if one is the high priest in the Holy of Holies, a still higher level of holiness is possible.
One must never reach a mountain top without seeing a further mountain top ahead.
Rabbi Raymond Applewas for many years Australia’s highest profile rabbi and the leading spokesman on Judaism. After serving congregations in London, Rabbi Apple was chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, for 32 years. He also held many public roles, particularly in the fields of chaplaincy, interfaith dialogue and Freemasonry, and is the recipient of several national and civic honours. Now retired, he lives in Jerusalem and blogs at http://www.oztorah.com