‘Do not remove thy neighbor’s landmark’
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‘Do not remove thy neighbor’s landmark’

The commandment of hasagat gvul, literally infringement of boundary, arises from God’s instruction to the Israelites (Deuteronomy 19:14), "Do not remove thy neighbor’s landmark," a reference to property boundaries.

In talmudic times, in a society that was no longer strictly agrarian, this was understood to prohibit unfair competition in business or trade. It was against Jewish law, therefore, for a person to threaten the livelihood of his neighbor. Communal interest is trumped by the survival of a single member, since the community is responsible for the welfare of each of its members, explained one area scholar familiar with hasagat gvul.

Contemporary disputes of hasagat gvul typically involve commercial enterprises.

Leaders of the mainstream movements reached this week reflected on their denominational perspectives on hasagat gvul in relation to the establishment of new congregations near existing synagogues of the same religious stream.

The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the congregational arm of the movement, has guidelines for dealing with instances of encroachment by one Conservative synagogue on the territory of another, said Rabbi Moshe Edelman, USCJ’s director of synagogue relations, based on "Standards for Congregational Practice," a document Edelman recently revised.

He did, however, note that the complexity of Conservative theology and practice means that circumstances would be examined on a case-by-case basis.

"There could be different religious practices and philosophies of two Conservative synagogues around the corner from each other," said Edelman. "We would have to check out the situation and the claim and mediate to try to work out the details. If one congregation is overstepping, we would ask it to cease and desist from its behavior. We might say, ‘We won’t accept you as an affiliate of United Synagogue.’"

Rabbi Shammai Engelmayer, a Conservative rabbi serving as president of the North Jersey Board of Rabbis, the local rabbinical association of Reform and Conservative rabbis, noted that if faced with an appeal by two congregations, the board "would defer to the individual movements’ congregational arms to address the issue, because we don’t have the power to make decisions about who can be where."

The board can function in an advisory capacity, however, said Engelmayer, and "we would probably do our best to adjudicate in some way, if asked. We’re glad to help mediate, but we can’t issue dicta." He added, "Nobody wants to see that kind of competition taking hold because that hurts everyone."

Noting that the issue rarely comes up in this region, assistant regional director of the Union for Reform Judaism in Washington Township, Paul Kaufman, commented, "A new congregation cannot solicit members from a nearby established congregation, if it wants to gain membership in the union."

Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, executive vice president of the Orthodox Union, said through a spokesman, "I would be greatly saddened to hear about such a situation, even though it reflects a sign of growth [in population]. Certainly the parties should go to some sort of mediation or arbitration. We’d be willing to offer our services or we would recommend that they go to an independent arbitrator or to the Beit Din of America." Weinreb added that he didn’t believe allegations of hasagat gvul were very common occurrences in Orthodox communal life.

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