Dr. Lakra: Betzelem Elohim in Malchut Shaddai(im)
March 21, 2011 at 5:29 pm, by Timna Burston
If the title of this blog-post is confusing, it is only because the exhibit by Dr. Lakra, a Mexican tattoo artist, showing his work at the Drawing Center at 3 Wooster St in NYC, raises quite a few questions for the Jewish viewer. Thus, this blog-post will attempt to cover the following topics: tattoos and the question of the godly form, the afterlife, the question of demons in the Jewish universe and even pornography.
Betzelem Elohim – What’s the deal with tattoos for the Jews?
Like many fun prohibitions, this one starts with Leviticus: “You shall not make gashes in your flesh for the dead, or incise any marks on yourselves: I am the Lord” (Leviticus 19:28). This would seem to show that making markings on oneself, such as cuts, are forbidden. Why then, would this be the case? Rabbi Allan Lucas, a contemporary Conservative rabbi, discusses this in his article on the subject of Tattoos and Judaism.
According to one interpretation, it is the permanent nature of the act that is problematic: “If a man wrote [on his skin] pricked-in writing, he is not culpable unless he writes it and pricks it in with ink or eye-paint or anything that leaves a lasting mark” (Mishnah Makkot 3:6). But Rabbi Simeon ben Judah disagrees, saying that it is only prohibited to inscribe the name of God.Maimonides (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Idolatry 12:11) says Jews must not tattoo themselves because pagans did, so this could be perceived as an idolatrous act. Professor Aaron Demsky of Bar-Ilan University, in his article “Writing,” written for Encyclopaedia Judaica, has gone so far as to say that non-idolatrous tattooing may have occurred during biblical times.
So we see that there are varied opinions about tattoos in Jewish law. Over time, however, rabbis have become increasingly adverse to tattoos and eventually banned them entirely (Tosafot commentary to Babylonian Talmud, Gittin 20b). Today, most rabbis would tell you that tattoos are prohibited because they violate the concept of us being created “Betzelem Elohim”, in the image of God, and we must protect our Godlike image. I find this opinion to be interesting, as these same rabbis would probably have no problem with Orthodox women wearing pearl earrings. It seems that certain alterations to our godlike physique are considered valid, while others, especially those associated with being non-Jewish (as Maimonides suggests), are frowned upon.
All of the images in Dr. Lakra’s exhibit were inspired by and were possibly designs for tattoos that would go on the human form. This leads to another question – can tattoos be considered an art-form? I think they can: Inherently, I believe visual art is about a person expressing themself visually with a viewer. Such artists as Marcel Duchamps and Andy Warhol have shown us that an artist does not need to physically produce their piece of art in order to create something with meaning and thought behind it. When people ask a tattoo artist to design something for them to wear on their person, not only is the tattoo artist creating, but the patron (who may not see himself or herself as an artist) is also engaging in an artistic process. Thus, the client in a tattoo parlor asks the artist to help him express himself and, through this, the client becomes a creator.
I have always seen God as a creator, and if we were to equate His acts to those of an artist, the Universe in all its complexity is an expression of Himself. In that respect, I believe that people who become creators are becoming more godlike, more Betzelem Elohim. If they manage to express themselves fully, I think that reflects their godlike nature, rather than negating it. In this regard, I think that the lenient voice of Rabbi Simeon ben Judah should be adopted.
So, if we have established that Jews may view tattoos, let us turn to the exhibit in closer detail. Before going to the exhibit by Dr. Lakra, I had been told it would be an exhibit of tattoos. What it actually turned out to be was a site-specific large-scale drawing, spanning the walls of the small Chinatown gallery, and consisting of a mélange of ink drawings ranging from big murals to tiny miniatures on scraps of translucent paper. The themes Dr. Lakra depicts were as varied as his formats, and ranged from brutally graphic pornography, to images associated with death and decay, to religions including idols from some indigenous tribes and images of Jesus and Eastern gods.
The composition is laid out literally all over the walls of the gallery, and tied together by some black abstract areas, reminiscent of a shadow, of smoke, or of a silhouette. At times, these swirls turn into images of dark fairytale forests, dolls with skulls for heads, busty women and decrepit old men. These tie into the overall themes of overt sexuality, violence and religion. The artist bombards you with images you might see through the media—scores of women naked and involved in sex acts and purposefully posed in various grotesque ways, images of the body decaying, of insects crawling into mouths, of brutal dismemberment; all these alongside images representing different religions, mostly those prevalent in Dr. Lakra’s native Mexico.
The images are both shocking and perverse, representing man’s darkest urges, “the banality of evil” as the philosopher Hannah Arendt would put it. Obviously citing the surrealists (Dr. Lakra could not resist putting a melting digital watch in the corner, almost winking at Salvador Dali), the artist represents society’s fantasies and desires, fears and phobias, side by side with the need for salvation. Entering the gallery is like entering a waking dream in which images swirl together uninhibited by logic or ethics.
As I left the gallery, my mind swirled with images of naked Shaddayim (breasts) and the dark shadows of Shedim (demons). I thought of the idea of Malchut Shaddai, so often referred to as the Kingdom of Heaven thanks to our Christian brethren. But in fact, Malchut Shaddai is the Kingdom of God, referred to as Shaddai, the name of the god who approached Abraham, the god who gave us the total sensual overload of Mt. Sinai, the god whose name means destruction and awesome power. This exhibit overwhelms you with the ugliness and violence of mankind, how a man can be overcome and conquered by the most base of desires. It is the kingdom of destruction, the kingdom of demons, the kingdom of decay. Having said all of this, is this the Kingdom of Shaddai? Is it Betzelem Elohim? What do you think?
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