Cohanim, priests, lived a very different life than the ordinary Israelites. Of course they had a massive lot of Temple duties of all different kinds, from sacrificing to baking special bread and mixing incense. They even ate different food. Only they and their families could eat tithes, and they had to be in a state of special ritual purity to do this.
This week’s Torah talks about the limitations concerning mourning. Priests could not go to graveyards, in case they came into contact with a corpse either directly or indirectly, and so they could not bury people who were not immediate relatives (unless there was absolutely no one else around to do it). In addition, they were forbidden to express their mourning in ways that must have been quite common then, like shaving their heads, cutting off their beards, cutting their skin, or tattooing themselves. In effect these laws soon extended to the whole of the people, and this is why they are now forbidden to us all.
Tattooing? Forbidden? Yup. We are supposed to treat our living and dead bodies respectfully. We can’t deface ourselves, and tattooing counts as that. It also counts as following pagan customs. In modern terms this means trying to imitate a code of practice that conflicts with Jewish values. Can we seriously argue that this is what tattooing is about? Well, it certainly is an expression of rebellion, an expression of secularity, and a statement of where one wants to belong, what one wants to say about oneself.
The idea of priests is the idea that some of us can aspire to higher standards. Higher standards should lead us to live a fuller, more satisfying way of life. A tattoo doesn’t mean much in itself. But it is what it really means, beneath the surface, that counts.