What should I do about my screaming neighbours next door?

December 29, 2010

Question: We are regularly disturbed by the sound of our neighbours screaming at each other through the walls. Do you think we should have a word with their rabbi about what is going on or only intervene if there were any indication of physical abuse?

Rabbi Naftali Brawer

Naftali Brawer is rabbi at Borehamwood and Elstree United Synagogue.

Your dilemma reflects two Jewish values inherent in the same verse. Leviticus 19:16 states: "You shall not be a gossipmonger among your people, you shall not stand aside while your fellow's blood is shed..." The first half of the verse proscribes passing gossip on about other people. This includes any useless information even if it is true, such as the fact that your neighbours make a lot of noise arguing. The second half prohibits taking a passive stance when another person's life could be in danger. If you suspected your neighbours were in danger and still did nothing to intervene, you would bear responsibility. So how do you navigate this quandary?

Perhaps it helps to bear in mind that not every argument - shrill as it may be- is an indication that the participants are likely, or even capable of harming each other. There is a wonderful Yiddish phrase fun lung tsu tsung (from lung to tongue) which describes the kind of person who does not keep anything on his chest.

Such a person expresses himself - sometimes quite vociferously - whenever something bothers him. It may not be pleasant to listen to but in certain respects it can make for a healthier relationship because everything is out in the open. Ironically the passage in Leviticus following the one cited above states: "You shall not hate your fellow in your heart, you shall reprove your fellow". Here the Torah instructs us not to keep resentment or anger bottled up but to express it in the hope of clearing the air.

The point is that arguments can be healthy provided they do not deteriorate into denigrating the other. A vigorous exchange of ideas can be a good thing and children who grow up in homes where such arguing is apparent are richer for it as they will learn how to disagree with the people they love without threatening that love. I am suspicious of families that never argue. It may be that they are blissfully happy but it is also likely that they are not and that they keep too much bottled up inside, leading to deep unspoken resentment. Over time such unexpressed resentment can silently erode a relationship.

My advice to you is to monitor the situation carefully. If you detect any sort of abuse, you have a responsibility to get help. If, on the other hand, your neighbours seem otherwise perfectly happy and safe, try to ignore their arguing - or at the very least get a good pair of headphones.

Rabbi Jonathan Romain

Jonathan Romain is rabbi at Maidenhead (Reform) Synagogue.

There are two separate problems here. The first is their lives and how sad it is that a husband and wife are regularly in a state of friction.

There are some hot-headed couples who yell at each other but still love one another dearly and would be devastated if one of them died - but too often constant rows means constant unhappiness.

Sometimes the problems lie in external circumstances, such as stress at work, and the way forward is to tackle those causes. Other times, the source of the conflict rests with the couple themselves, such as their expectations of each other.

In these instances, they can try to remedy their relationship through counselling (and there are plenty of both Jewish and wider services who can help) or they can separate. Judaism values marriage but does not insist it becomes a prison, and permits divorce when attempts at reconciliation have failed.

The second problem is the impact of their arguments on you.

Home is where we try to create a haven of peace and seek rest from our struggles in the wider world. You have a right not to be disturbed, while it can be embarrassing hearing private details that you would prefer not to know.

For both your and their sake, intervening in some way is right, while waiting until abuse turns to violence is leaving it too late. The Yom Kippur portion taken from Leviticus 19.16 urges us "not to stand idly by the blood of your neighbour" and that can include pre-emptive action.

One option is to speak to the couple yourself, or whichever one of them you find the most approachable, in a sympathetic way ("I heard a lot of noise the other day - is everything ok? Can I do anything to help?") which offers support, while the fact that someone outside has noticed may cause them to reassess matters.

However, if you are afraid of an unpleasant response which might make living next door even more difficult, then approach their rabbi, although if you feel there is a danger of physical abuse, inform social services. Likewise if there is mental abuse, or if children are involved.

That same verse in Leviticus also warns against being "a talebearer" and there is a risk of being a busybody, but the danger of looking the other way and ignoring human cries is much greater. Thou shalt intervene

Last updated: 2:28pm, December 29 2010