Jews and Tattoos, or What happens when religion clashes with everyday life?

I recently learnt that among the rules that Orthodox Jews observe is not tattooing their skin. This made sense initially and I thought that the reason was the forceful branding of people in concentration camps. However, the prohibition is in fact much older and based on this verse from the Torah:

“You shall not make gashes in your flesh for the dead, or incise any marks on yourselves: I am the Lord” (Leviticus 19:28).

Avital Norman Nathman, one of the bloggers in the Jewish website Kveller, discusses the question of tattoos in a post entitled Concentration Camp Tattoos for a Younger Generation? While tattooing may seem to some a minor concern in comparison with a religious belief, to others it is not: otherwise there would be far fewer people with tattoos around! Regardless of whether we are talking about tattooing, food-choices, marriage, gay rights, or any other small or huge issues on which religious have something to say, the discussion in the post is enlightening of the thought process that goes on when such a clash happens.

As a secular person who grew up in a secular post-socialist state, I have no first-hand knowledge of how exactly people combine observance of the tenets of their religion with the demands of their everyday life. Sadly, this is not something that is often discussed between religions and non-religious friends, or even between friends each of whom belongs to different religions. And as a sociologist who has never studied sociology of religion, I find myself baffled by these questions every time I notice one of my friends confused or frustrated by the clash between their belief and something in their daily surroundings. What judgements do people do, and what takes precedence when they are faced with so many small everyday issues, such as having trouble choosing a suitable meal, having to ignore strange looks because of ‘conservative’ headgear or clothing in one situation and then being scorned for not being sufficiently conservative in another, or being unable to join in a particular social event or gathering. In Margaret Archer’s terms, how do people cope in practice, when important concerns clash in their lives?

So I decided to do a little research, and here is what I found.

For a comprehensive recent review of anthropology of Judaism, check out Brink-Danan’s (2008) paper Anthropological Perspectives on Judaism:A Comparative Review (available on if you click the link)

Here’s a few other articles:

Huppert JD, Siev J, Kushner ES. When religion and obsessive-compulsive disorder collide: treating scrupulosity in Ultra-Orthodox Jews. J Clin Psychol. 2007 Oct;63(10):925-41.

Baeke G, Wils JP, Broeckaert B. ‘We are (not) the master of our body’: elderly Jewish women’s attitudes towards euthanasia and assisted suicide. Ethn Health. 2011 Jun;16(3):259-78.

Wikler M. The religion of the therapist: its meaning to Orthodox Jewish clients.

Hillside J Clin Psychiatry. 1989;11(2):131-46.

Haimov-Kochman R, Hochner-Celinkier D. Contraceptive counseling for orthodox Jewish women. Eur J Contracept Reprod Health Care. 2007 Mar;12(1):13-8.

(2006) GERMANS NO MORE. Accounts of Jewish Everyday Life, 1933-1938, Edited by Margarete Limberg and Hubert Rübsaat, Translated from the German by Alan Nothnagle


Religion in everyday life: papers given at a symposium in Stockholm, 13-15 September 1993, arranged by the Royal Academy of Letters, History and Antiquities along with the Foundation Natur och Kultur, Publishers<

Everyday Religion: Observing Modern Religious Lives  edited by Nancy T. Ammerman

Religion in English Everyday Life: An Ethnographic Approach By Timothy Jenkins

Religion and Everyday Life and Culture Richard D. Hecht, Vincent F. Biondon

(1995) Rationality in science, religion, and everyday life: a critical evaluation of four models of rationality by Mikael Stenmark, University of Notre Dame Press,

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