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The Jewish Ethicist: Wearing Fur

The Jewish Ethicist: Wearing Fur

Is it wrong to wear fur?


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.

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Visitor Comments: 13

(12) Anonymous, October 18, 2013 9:19 AM

The Meat Industry Versus The Fur Industry

The difference between the meat industry and the fur industry is really very simple...When one cow is killed, many humans are provided with food, many animals are provided with food (there are 60 million dogs in the U.S.A. alone and they are all meat-eaters), and many people are clothed. If tommorrow all of humanity stopped eating animal flesh, there would still be countless millions of cows (and other animals) killed to feed our pets. A dog can not live on lettuce and carrots...When a cow is slaughtered one animal dies so that many more can live. When a fur coat is produced many many small animals die so that a single person can have a coat. The difference is stark. Minks and foxes and other animals killed for their fur are small animals and a lot of animals must die to have enough fur to make one short coat let alone a floor-length one. I once was waiting for an elevator and when it arrived and the door opened there was a man and woman standing there both in full-length fur coats. There was so much slaughter in that elevator I could not bring myself to enter and just let the door shut...

(11) Anonymous, October 18, 2013 8:50 AM

In The Time Of The Messiah

We are taught that when the Messiah comes the lion- one of the greatest apex predators on the planet- will no longer kill and eat other animals. The mighty lion will become vegetarian and no longer cause the suffering and death of other animals. This is an enormous clue as to the ideal state of the world. It is also important to note that in Gan Eden Adam and Eve were vegetarians. If in the time of the Messiah even the lion will not kill animals- then what about mankind's accountability for killing countless helpless innocent animals for their fur???

(10) Janet Lesser, October 18, 2013 8:06 AM

The Fur Streimel

Concerning the fur streimel- It is my understanding that the fur streimel was the result of an anti-semetic decree in Russia that Jews were less than human and therefore were required to wear the tail of an animal. With Jewish ingenuity the community complied with the decree by forming the animal tail into a wearable hat. This is similar to the the Nazi decree that Jews wear yellow stars on their garmets- but when the horror of the Holocaust was finally over the Jews did not continue wearing the yellow stars. Why then did the Jews not leave the streimel behind when they made it to freedom in other parts of the world? If I were alive in that place at that time the very first thing I would have done upon leaving Russia would have been to get the hell rid of the animal tail fur hat!!! The usual response to the question of why some Jews continued wearing the streimel is that it had become a "tradition" which to me is a very, very weak answer as to why a Jew would voluntarily carry on a practice based on an vile anti-semetic decree (???)

(9) Jane, January 1, 2006 12:00 AM

Question of inherited fur

My own reasons for avoiding fur have been summarized in the reader comments: (1) fur is not a by-product of whole animal use, as in the case of goose down or leather, and (2) with down, wool, and synthetics, most people do not need fur for warmth.

My mother owns several fur coats: mink, silver fox, red fox, etc. I'm sure that one day I will most likely inherit her collection. What would be the ethical thing to do with them? The fur is beautiful and soft, of course, but I would not go out and buy it myself - thus promoting the industry, but that impression might be conveyed if I wear or sell the coats!

Janet Lesser, October 18, 2013 7:23 AM

Inherited Fur

The only moral thing to do with inherited fur is to sell it and give the money to an animal charity of your choice, be it your local animal shelter, The Humane Society International or an organization working to save an endangered species (there are so many endangered species that you have a huge selection of options). This is the only tikun (repair) for the unspeakable suffering endured by trapped animals or those raised in captivity for their fur. I can not imagine how wearing the fur of any animal- especially ones that have been dead for 30 or 40 years (gross!)- is appealing to anyone. Sellling inherited fur makes a fur coat available for purchase to those who are callous enough to want to wear one without the slaughter of any additional animals.

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