Good Relations with Your Neighbors
In the most recent column of The Ethicist, the following question was addressed,
I serve on my neighborhood homeowners’ association. Recently we discussed a woman who provides day care for 6 to 10 kids, contrary to our covenants against running a home business. Complicating matters, I, too, work from home, doing desktop publishing, but nobody minds since I don’t draw increased traffic to the neighborhood. Is it ethical of us to close this woman’s business? — J.H., WASHINGTON
The answer given was,
It is not. The association stifles her business but not yours. Ethical rules must apply equally to all. Also unfortunate is the rule itself. If you harm no one, what concern is it of your neighbors what goes on in your home?
There is a legitimate gripe if one neighbor disturbs another, and bringing inordinate traffic into a community might do that. [italics added, MM] (The association could reasonably ban Free Beer and Air Horn Night at backyard demolition derbies.) But a few parents delivering and retrieving their kids falls short of this standard. If traffic — not home as a workplace — really is a problem, the association should address it with more precisely written regulations. In any case, there are things called “laws” to deal with such matters, and these have the virtue of open debate in their drafting and, in their application, due process, transparency and record-keeping.
Perhaps conundrums like yours are to be expected from homeowners’ associations, a dubious echo from 18th-century America, when political rights were limited to property owners. Beware that, giddy with nostalgia, your community does not further limit such rights to white men.
The question of neighbors disturbing other neighbors is a topic that is discussed in the Mishnah.
לא יפתח אדם חנות של נחתומין ושל צבעין תחת אוצרו של חבירו ולא רפת בקר באמת ביין התירו אבל לא רפת בקר חנות שבחצר יכול למחות בידו ולומר לו איני יכול לישן מקול הנכנסין ומקול היוצאין עושה כלים יוצא ומוכר בתוך השוק אבל אינו יכול למחות בידו ולומר לו איני יכול לישן לא מקול הפטיש ולא מקול הרחים ולא מקול התינוקות (בבא בתרא ב:ג)
One may not open a bakery or a dye shop under the storehouse of his fellow, nor a cow-shed. They actually permitted [these under] a winestore, but not a cow-shed. One may object to a store that is within a courtyard and say to him “I am not able to sleep because of all the noise from those coming and going. Someone who makes utensils, goes out and sells within the market, but no one can protest and say to him “I can’t sleep because of the noise of the hammer” or “…because of the noise of the mill-stones” or “…because of the noise of the children.” (Baba Batra 2:3) [adapted from Danby's translation]
A problem with this mishnah is that the first-half (רישא) seems to allow a person to object to a business because of the noise that it makes, while the second-half (סיפא) seems to preclude this possibility, ” but no one can protest and say to him.” The terms “באמת” (“actually”), or “באמת אמרו” (“they actually said”), are interpreted by scholars to signify the introduction of an old halakhah. While not necessarily thinking in these historical terms, the Gemara is clearly aware of the contradiction between the first and second-halves of the mishnah. (see Baba Batra 20b) The proposed solution is that the second-half is talking about students studying Torah and it is after universal education for children was introduced by R. Yehoshua ben Gamlah. (See Baba Batra 21a for more discussion of the Mishnah, including the permission to protest against the noise of non-Jewish schoolchildren)
The Tur brings another related halakhah (Tur, Hoshen Mishpat 156) and says that not only aren’t people allowed to protest against children studying Torah, but also one cannot protest against anything connected with a mitzvah such as distributing charity or praying with a minyan. (also see the Beit Yosef ad locum) R. Eliezer Waldenberg z”l uses this halakhah in relation to the question of whether one can object to a medical office being opened in an apartment building. (Responsa Tziz Eliezer, vol. 10, no. 35, section 30=Tehumin, vol. 3, pp. 272-274) In the Gemara (Baba Batra 21a) the statement is brought that one is allowed to object to a doctor’s office being set up in a courtyard, since such an office will increase the number of people walking in the courtyard. Rabbi Waldenberg says that this halakhah isn’t so simple, and that many commentators are of the opinion that neighbors cannot object if the doctor is dealing with ill people who are, according to some opinions, primarily Jews (you can’t ignore offensive [to me] opinions like these), it is permitted.
So the next time that you want to complain about a neighbor, or a neighbor complains about you, know that you are continuing a long line of “quality-of-life” discussions that can be found in Jewish sources.