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The Jewish Ethicist - Teenager in our Midst

May 9, 2009 | by Rabbi Dr. Asher Meir, Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem

Should we report our neighbor who is breaking our age-restricted community by-laws?

Q. I'm on the administrative committee of an age-restricted (over-55) community. One neighbor is living with his teenage grandson, in violation of our community by-laws. Can I report his violation to the committee, which will then weigh sanctions?

A. Let's study first the background of this question.

While originally there was little regulation of resident restrictions in the US, the growing civil-rights consciousness of the 1960's gave rise to the Fair Housing Act which prohibited arbitrary discrimination in housing. Among the protected categories are race and family status, for example prohibiting single-parent families or those with young children.

However, Congress decided that allowing older people to establish a quiet community served an important public interest, and created an exception to the Act. The Housing for Older Persons Act makes it legal to establish a community designed for and restricted to households where at least one member is over 55. (My understanding is that even these communities may not discriminate based on family status for those people who meet the criteria or are exempt from them. They cannot preferentially exclude one 55-year- old because he is a single parent of teenaged children.)

Since grandchildren are not considered family members for the purpose of the statute, communities may and do forbid their residence. (Of course they are encouraged to visit.)

What about reporting the violation? Jewish law strictly regulates any kind of damaging speech, including turning someone in for a violation. The great 20th century authority Rabbi Yisrael Meir HaCohen wrote an entire book on this topic, entitled Chafetz Chaim -- "He who wants life". The title refers to the Biblical verse, "Who is the man who wants life, and loves days to see good? He who guards his tongue from evil, and his lips from speaking deceit" (Psalms 34:13-14). The Chafetz Chaim explains that such reporting is only permissible if five conditions are met -- the ABC's of kosher speech:

The report must be Accurate; it must be the only way to bring about a constructive Benefit; fact checking must attain an appropriate level of Certainty; there must be a constructive intent and Desire, and not a vindictive motive; and the report must be Equitable, and not expose the subject to any excessive sanctions. (1)

If you have verified that the resident does indeed have a grandson living with him, and you have tried alternatives to reporting such as a friendly discussion with the resident himself, and if your objective is only to maintain the by-laws for the benefit of the residents, then the only criterion left is Equity.

The equity criterion has two aspects here. The first is that the rule itself is equitable; the second is that it is applied in a fair and equitable fashion. Let's discuss these separately.

Jewish law attaches great importance to community by-laws. An entire chapter of the Talmud (the first chapter of tractate Bava Batra) is devoted to elucidating the laws and customs related to neighbors in a common courtyard or city. These include principles for what kinds of tenants may fairly be excluded from the residence. While the relevant questions in ancient Babylonia were sometimes different than those in 21st century North America, the basic principles are the same: Residents are within their rights to make regulations protecting living conditions (for example, zoning restrictions on businesses which make noise or which bring excessive traffic) as long as they don't create unreasonable hardships. For example, a family can be prevented from permanently dividing a residence and bringing in an additional family, because this is a significant hardship for the residents. But they cannot be prevented from inviting guests, since the hardship for others is limited whereas prohibiting guests is an unreasonable hardship for the current tenant. (2)

The other aspect of equity is fair procedure. If the result of your report would be that the committee would summarily evict the youngster from his home, that would certainly be inequitable. Regulations are important, but there is usually another side to the story. However, you tell me that suspected violators are given an open hearing to present their version of events and regulations, and that they also have the right to appeal rulings of local committees before an impartial state board.

If you believe that the regulation prohibiting grandchildren serves a constructive purpose; if you have tried alternatives to reporting including explaining the regulations to the tenant; and if there is an orderly and equitable procedure for this grandfather to obtain a fair hearing, then you may report the situation to the committee. Given the fact that you are a committee member and have a special obligation to uphold its decisions, it is even appropriate for you to do so.

At the same time, I urge you to help the grandfather and the boy by informing them of all rights and claims they may have. For example, many such communities have a limited number (generally 20%) of exemptions; the housing regulations permitting eviction may be contradicted by laws protecting minors restricting them, and so on. The objective should be a fair hearing which truly presents the strongest possible case for each side.

SOURCES: (1) Chafetz Chaim vol. II chapter 9. (2) Maimonides Neighbors 5:8-9.

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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