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‘Tznius’ in Furs: What Judaism Has To Say About My Mink Coat

How can we square conspicuous extravagance with laws of modesty? What about Jewish laws about treating animals humanely?

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(Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.)
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On the Lower East Side, most of the fur I see is on Orthodox women. Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is scornful of religious women in fur, writing about how after spending a decade in England, he was shocked to experience “the blizzard of fur coats in New York and New Jersey.” But in America, he writes in The Jewish Press, “the fur coat is to women what the Ferrari has always been to men—the ultimate statement of high-flying, material success.” One might think women would be above flaunting the accouterments of success the way men do, since “we always believed that women were more mature and could rise above the insecurities that have often made men so ridiculous.” But no! And yet, he continues, “I am not judging the fine women of my neighborhood, many of whom lead lives of exceptional generosity and humility, for wearing a rare species as a second skin. We all like nice things, and we all like to occasionally make an impression. And who am I to judge when throughout my life I have also battled my own materialistic inclination, not to mention my own shallow need to impress? My point, rather, is this: If the lust for materialism in the Jewish community is even beginning to corrupt our women, then it’s time to wake up and smell the money.” (Whew, not too many backhanded compliments, equivocating, or sexism there. Then again, in a column full of my own contradictions, who am I to talk?) Perhaps, Boteach implies, we were better off as a people when we were poorer and more persecuted. “It turns out that money is even more corrosive than poverty, and living on the Upper East Side of Manhattan can be more injurious to one’s soul than living in a ghetto,” he concludes.

I might not go that far. One has the luxury of worrying about the impact of luxury goods on one’s soul when one is not worried about the impact of Cossacks and Nazis on one’s neck.

But there’s a strange contradiction between the laws of tzniut (or tznius), modesty, and the prevalence of fur in the religious community. If you literally believe in the laws of tzniut, how do you square those beliefs with gazillion-dollar golden wigs, long-but-tight sexy-librarian dresses, and schmancy furs? Isn’t the mere act of flaunting your dominion over the rest of God’s creatures inherently immodest? And what of the fur on religious men’s Shabbos hats? Isn’t that a wee bit unnecessarily superfly?

An ultra-Orthodox rabbi in Jerusalem says yes. Last year, the influential Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim announced that fur shtreimels violate the laws of tza’ar baalei chaim, and wearing one is a desecration of God’s name. Artificial fur, he said, should do fine.

Among the non-Orthodox, statement fur—whether in a ritual or fashion context—is less common than it was a few decades ago. My former colleague at Sassy, fashion icon Andrea Linett, points out that while fur has always been a symbol of “arriving” and a powerful lure for immigrants of all stripes, lower-key, more playful fur (often from less expensive pelts, like rabbit) holds sway among young fashion-conscious shoppers. And Joselit points out that vintage fur (in the form of shrugs, jackets, or fur-trimmed cardigans) “is knowing and ironic, compared to going to someplace like J. Mendel and buying an important fur.” For younger consumers, fur goes with either wink or a wince. “But for their parents and grandparents,” Joselit points out, “fur was deadly serious.”

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‘Tznius’ in Furs: What Judaism Has To Say About My Mink Coat

How can we square conspicuous extravagance with laws of modesty? What about Jewish laws about treating animals humanely?

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