Punk Torah addresses religion and body art
By OLIVIA PIERCE FREEMAN
Rabbi Patrick Aleph kicked off his Punk Torah tour during his recent Oct. 24 visit to the University of Puget Sound. He discussed the taboo against tattoos within Jewish tradition, and offered his perspective on the controversial choice to have a tattoo as a follower of Judaism.
Aleph thought he had life figured out as the singer for the post-punk band The Love Drunks; however, when he found himself living out of a converted Dodge van, making ramen noodles and only $8,000 a year, he realized his mother had been right.
He was in the midst of an identity crisis and so quickly began to explore his spirituality and his relationship with Judaism.
Now, as a freshly dubbed rabbi, Aleph has created and runs punktorah.org, a site for those who have “fallen through the cracks of Jewish life” and are looking to find something different from their spiritual practice, as well as many other online Jewish communities.
The slide show began with photos of members of his online community team who have inked themselves with Jewish symbols. Then, as “OW OW’s” flew from the audience, Aleph began to unbutton his shirt to expose his arms garbed with traditional symbols to prove that he too is tattooed.
“I want you to know this is the first time in history a rabbi has started to undress on stage and receive a cat-call from the audience,” he said. “I dig it.”
Aleph believes that body modification is a spiritual act, not an entirely aesthetic one. “When you get a tattoo,” he said, “it is a religious experience even if you don’t want to think of it as one.”
His basis for this claim comes from the idea that there are two spiritual spheres of human life: the external and internal landscapes.
The first sphere encompasses everything that surrounds an individual. All tangible activity, connection or involvement is considered part of this sphere.
The second sphere is concerned with aspirations, obsessions and ambitions; all that can be found within an individual’s spirit or Self.
Occasionally the internal and external landscapes bump up against each other, and it is these moments that give life its meaning.
“The individual awakens to the reality that Self is not all about ‘me,’” Aleph said, “but rather that awareness of Self is the transformation of ego into a spiritual relationship with God.”
Aleph then explained that because of this awareness of Self and established relationship with the divine, many believe they have a duty to God. This belief is the foundation for the arguments made against body modification in religious traditions like Judaism.
“The text says no” is the most frequent argument made against tattoos. To this, Aleph refuted that spiritual texts are consistently taken out of context and are interpreted differently by everyone.
“Tattoos are a mutilation of God’s creation” comes in second place, to which he argued that art is not a mutilation. “We mark our bodies in reverence for what’s up there,” he said.
“It distracts from Allah” was next. His response? If the tattoo is hidden and unable to distract others from their own, personal relationship with God, Aleph believes the easiest solution to this argument is to “put on a shirt.”
Aleph then discredited the argument that tattoos cause “unnecessary harm” by explaining that there is no textual evidence for this claim. “If there were,” he said, “we wouldn’t be going to war to attack people.”
Finally, he dismissed the idea that tattoos have the ability to “offend cultural or historical taboos” like the identification numbers tattooed on concentration camp prisoners during the Holocaust. To this he responded that taboos change over time.
“Gay marriage for example,” he said. “It took them 100 years to do the right thing.” The audience acknowledged this with heartwarming applause.
Ultimately, Aleph believes that “Tattoos give a sense of spiritual connection both with God and with Self,” and as long as body modification exists, it will stand as proof that our culture is spiritual and myth-centered.