Is Fur a Jewish Issue?
Jewish worshipers chant every Sabbath morning, “The soul of every living being shall praise God’s name” (Nishmat kol chai t’varech et shim’chah). Yet, some come to synagogue during winter months wearing coats that required the cruel treatment of some of those living beings whose souls, we declare, praise God.
Should Jews wear fur? Several factors should be considered:
1. What does the Jewish tradition teach about the treatment of animals?
2. How much suffering do animals who are raised or trapped for their fur experience?
3. Does the wearing of fur coats have any redeeming factors that would override Jewish teachings about the proper treatment of animals?
JUDAISM AND ANIMALS
Judaism has beautiful and powerful teachings with regard to showing compassion to animals. The following are a few examples:
Moses and King David were considered worthy to be leaders of the Jewish people because of their compassionate treatment of animals, when they were shepherds. Rebecca was judged suitable to be a wife of the patriarch Isaac because of her kindness in watering the ten camels of Eliezer, Abraham’s servant. Rabbi Yehuda the Prince, the redactor of the Mishna, was punished for many years at the hand of Heaven for speaking callously to a calf being led to slaughter who sought refuge beside him.
Many Torah laws mandate proper treatment of animals. One may not muzzle an ox while it is working in the field nor yoke a strong and a weak animal together. Animals, as well as their masters, are meant to rest on the Sabbath day. The importance of this concept is indicated by the fact that it is mentioned in the Ten Commandments and on every Sabbath morning as part of the Kiddush ceremony.
The psalmist indicates G-d’s concern for animals, stating that “His compassion is over all of His creatures” (Psalm 145:9). And there is a mitzvah (precept) in the Torah to emulate the Divine compassion, as it is written: “And you shall walk in His ways” (Deuteronomy 28:9). Perhaps the Jewish attitude toward animals is best expressed by Proverbs 12:10: “The righteous person considers the soul (life) of his or her animal.”
The Torah prohibits Jews from causing tsa’ar ba’alei chayim, any unnecessary pain, including psychological pain, to living creatures. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, an outstanding 19th century philosopher, author, and Torah commentator, eloquently summarizes the Jewish view on treatment of animals: “Here you are faced with God’s teaching, which obliges you not only to refrain from inflicting unnecessary pain on any animal, but to help and, when you can, to lessen the pain whenever you see an animal suffering, even through no fault of yours.” (Horeb, Chapter 60, #416)
THE PAIN OF FUR-BEARING ANIMALS
Fur is obtained from animals who are either trapped or raised on ranches. Both involve violent and abusive treatment of animals which is far from Jewish teachings on the dignity and sensibility of animals.
Animals caught in steel-jaw leg hold traps suffer slow, agonizing deaths. Some are attacked by predators, freeze to death, or chew off their own legs to escape. It has been said that one can get a “feel for fur” by slamming your fingers with a car door. A Canadian Wildlife Service report gives an idea of the terror that trapped animals face and their desperate efforts to escape:
“The stomachs of [trapped] arctic foxes . . . often contain parts of their own bodies. They may swallow fragments of their teeth broken off in biting the trap, and sometimes part of a mangled foot; almost every stomach contains some fox fur, and a considerable number contain pieces of skin, claws, or bits of bone.”
Over 100 million wild animals are killed for their pelts every year. Many species of animals killed for their furs have become endangered or have disappeared completely in some localities. Millions of animals not wanted by trappers, including dogs, cats, and birds, die in traps annually and are discarded as “trash animals.” Many trapped animals leave behind dependent offspring who are doomed to starvation.
Treatment of animals raised on “fur ranches” is also extremely cruel. Confined to lifelong confinement, millions of foxes, beavers, minks, ocelots, rabbits, chinchillas, and other animals await extinction with nothing to do, little room to move, and all their natural instincts thwarted. The animals are simply a means to the maximizing of production and profit, and there is no regard for their physical, mental, or emotional well-being. Because of the enforced confinement and lack of privacy, naturally-wild animals often exhibit neurotic behaviors such as compulsive movements and self-mutilation. The animals finally suffer hideous deaths through electrocution by rods thrust up their anuses, by suffocation, by poisoning (which causes painful muscle cramping), or by having their necks broken.
According to the International Society for Animal Rights, Inc., to make one fur garment requires up to 400 squirrels, 240 ermine, 200 chinchillas, 120 muskrats, 80 sables, 50 martens, 30 raccoons, 22 bobcats, or 5 wolves. The Change for Animals Foundation indicates that up to 65 mink, 40 foxes,15 lynx, or 60 rabbits are needed to produce a full-length fur coat.
IS WEARING FUR NECESSARY?
Judaism puts human beings, uniquely created in the image of God, on a higher level than animals and specifies that animals may be harmed and even killed if an essential human need is met. However, is the wearing of fur truly necessary for people to stay warm during wintry weather? There are many non-fur coats and hats, available in a variety of styles that provide plenty of warmth. Imitation fur is produced at such a high level of quality that even among Hasidim there is a small but growing trend to wear synthetic “shtreimlach” (fur-trimmed hats).
Based on the prohibition of tsa’ar ba’alei chayim, Rabbi Chaim David Halevy, Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv issued a p’sak (rabbinic ruling) in March, 1992, mandating that Jews should not wear any fur. Rabbi Halevy asked: “Why should people be allowed to kill animals if it is not necessary, simply because they desire the pleasure of having the beauty and warmth of fur coats? Is it not possible to achieve the same degree of warmth without fur?”
Inspired by Rabbi Halevy’s prohibition and by Israel’s strict laws against mistreating animals, there was an attempt in 2010 to pass a law in the Knesset banning the manufacturing of fur in Israel, with an exception for Hasidic streimels for religious reasons. Had this law passed, it would have made Israel the only country in the world with such a ban. However, the bill has been temporarily blocked, possibly by Knesset members who felt that attempts to ban the production of meat would follow.
But do we really need the Knesset to pass a law to tell us what is right? In his book, The Jewish Encyclopedia of Moral and Ethical Issues, Rabbi Nachum Amsel, a modern Israeli author and educator, states: “If the only reason a person wears the fur coat is to ‘show off’ one’s wealth or to be a mere fashion statement, that would be considered to be a frivolous and not a legitimate need.” Rabbi Amsel also points out that hunting for sport is prohibited because it is not considered a legitimate need (based on Avodah Zarah 18b).
The previous Chief Ashkenazic Rabbi of Israel ruled against fur imports from China, where animals are often skinned alive. There is a growing awareness of the many cruelties involved in producing fur.
One has to wonder what kind of lesson young people are learning when they see worshippers arriving in synagogue in fur coats on the Sabbath day? Instead of reinforcing the many beautiful Jewish teachings about compassion to animals, are we teaching them that expensive status symbols and conspicuous consumption are more important than respect for God’s creation?
If there were a reduction in the wearing of fur, not only would tens of thousands of animals benefit from our compassion and concern—we, too, would benefit by becoming more sensitive and more humane, as Jews and civilized human beings. We would be setting an example for the rest of the world that says: There is no beauty in cruelty.