Q. Many NGO's are calling for a boycott of fur products and even of stores selling fur. Is it wrong to wear fur?

A. The outcry over fur products is rooted in a concern for animal suffering. In Judaism, as in secular ethics, we find two distinct bases for this concern.

Humane relations with animals are primarily governed by the prohibition on tza'ar baalei chaim, literally animal suffering. The basis of this prohibition is the belief that animals are a worthy object of ethical concern; they too have feelings and a capacity for enjoyment or pain, even if these are less than those of human beings.

We acknowledge that man was given dominion over animals and permitted to use them for his needs. The creation story tells us that God gave man "dominion over the fish of the sea, and the birds of the air; the beasts, and the entire land; and all the creatures that creep on the land" (Genesis 1:26). Man gave names to all creatures, showing his position of control; (Genesis 2:20), and after the flood God promises Noah that the animals will be in awe of man's dominant position, and allows mankind to eat meat (Genesis 9:2-3).

But like all privileges in the Torah, this privilege is accompanied by responsibility as well, and we see that Noah bore a heavy responsibility to save animal life.

The result is that only gratuitous pain is actually forbidden -- animal suffering beyond what is necessary or reasonable for human benefit.

A separate concern is an educational one: cruelty to animals can encourage cruel characteristics in people. The Talmud tells us that slaughterers are often "partners to Amalek" (1); Nachmanides explains that slaughterers of large animals often have a tendency towards cruelty. (2)

So far we have seen that use of animals for human needs, including fur, is legitimate; but that no gratuitous suffering should be caused to the animal. So why is fur singled out for particularly harsh criticism, rather than the far larger leather or meat industries? Some of it is no doubt due to the political strength of the industry, and it's pretty hard to take on an economic behemoth like the meat industry. But there are also some characteristics that distinguish furs.

While almost all animals killed for meat and leather are slaughtered, a very large number of fur hides are killed in ways which involve prolonged suffering, such as trapping or clubbing. Anti-fur groups claim that even animals that are raised on farms or ranches and are not trapped, are generally not slaughtered but rather dispatched in more painful ways that don't damage the hide.

Another claim sometimes made is that many furs come from wild species, and even if they are farmed and not trapped this is a unique hardship for a wild animal. There is some support for this idea in Jewish tradition. When the dove returns to Noah with an olive leaf in its mouth, Rashi tells us that he was giving Noah a message: "I prefer a livelihood as bitter as a [wild] olive as an independent creature, over one sweet as honey at the hands of flesh and blood." Soon afterward Noah freed the dove, which never returned to the captive existence of the ark (Genesis 8:10-12).

I think that much of the opposition to fur comes from the fact that furry animals just seem so cute (baby seals) or so noble (foxes). From the point of view of animal suffering this may not matter much, but it does matter for the consideration mentioned by Nachmanides -- the development of character traits. The more we feel a sense of empathy with animals, the more abusing them will dull our sense of ethical sensitivity towards people too.

Finally, furs are viewed as a luxury item and some people are naturally resistant to any kind of conspicuous consumption. This consideration is not completely lacking in support; after all, to the extent that furs are a luxury the killing is closer to being considered gratuitous, and if furs are true conspicuous consumption, to lord it over others, then perhaps it would be better to do away with them even if they don't involve animal suffering.

But I think that most furs are no more conspicuous or luxurious than a great many creature comforts that a few people enjoy and a great many other people wish they could. Five-figure mink stoles are not the mainstay of the fur industry; inexpensive winter jackets trimmed with rabbit fur are far more common. And there are plenty of leather goods which are no less luxurious.

In the end, I think that anti-fur arguments are valid, but limited. I don't see any justification for a total boycott of fur products, certainly not of the sellers of fur products. But I do favor judicious consideration of the source of the fur and the real benefit from wearing it.

SOURCES: (1) Kiddushin 82b. (2) Nachmanides, commentary on the Torah, Deuteronomy 22:6. (3) Berakhot 40a.

The Jewish Ethicist presents some general principles of Jewish law. For specific questions and direct application, please consult a qualified Rabbi.