In a rare turn of events, I recently found myself at a sports blog called Grantland, reading a long article that was ostensibly about golf. Admittedly, I only read the article about a special kind of golf club and its mysterious creator because of the criticism that was leveled against the article, and an accompanying apology from the editor.
In short, the article is about a golf putter whose inventor, a woman nicknamed “Dr. V,” had a mysterious past. As the reporter covering the story dug deeper to verify the inventor’s past, which apparently had been fabricated, he discovered that Dr. V was also a transgender woman. According to journalist’s account of the story, he confronted her with all the information he had uncovered, including her being transgender (it seems that Dr. V identified as a woman, not a transgender woman), Dr. V felt threatened, and, ultimately, took her own life.
Prejudiced by the two accompanying articles telling me that something was wrong with the article about Dr. V and her golf club, I recognized while reading the article the many red flags raised over the course of the reporting.
The journalist, excited about his discovery of Dr. V’s fabricated professional and academic past, had to some extent forgotten the humanity of his subject. His understandable thirst for knowledge prevented him from treating his subject with the dignity she felt she deserved.
Many in the LGBT community and beyond have pointed out the mistakes made in the way in which this story was reported and published. In particular, they pointed to the language used when referring to transgender people. But the need to use proper language and fight transphobia is only part of a larger lesson that we should learn from this incident.
Judaism considers respect for human dignity — derived from the passage in Genesis that all human beings are created in the image of God — to be of such paramount importance, that, according to the Talmud, it even “supersedes a negative commandment of the Torah.” Even though this statement is generally not taken to mean that it supersedes any negative commandment of the Torah, but rather the specific Torah commandment of not violating rabbinic rules, the principle remains that respect for human dignity has even greater weight than the entire corpus of laws that the rabbis devised to ensure proper observance of the Torah.
Of course, the rabbis recognized the subjectivity of human dignity, and have been loath to make sweeping legal statements in order to protect it. However, the great wisdom of this statement is not only in its legal implications, but also in its placement of values. For if the value of human dignity is so great that we’d even be willing to transgress a commandment for its sake, we certainly must give it preference when dealing with a different value.
In the case of the Grantland article, the value of human dignity was lost at the expense of the scoop and a desire to expose the truth. Indeed, it seems that the reporter did not even realize the damage he was doing to his subject’s dignity, which is precisely why we must always think proactively about the dignity of others as of the utmost priority. It is even likely that the reporter would have received a more accurate portrait of the new golf club had he respected Dr. V’s wishes for privacy regarding her past and personal life. Judaism teaches us that even if it came at the cost of the story, Dr. V’s dignity was more important than the report on her golf club’s invention.
This lesson in human dignity extends far beyond the field of journalism and needs to inform every decision we make as human beings. It must affect our speech, as we speak about individuals and about groups, it must affect the way we criticize, remembering that the subjects of our criticism are human beings just like we are, and it must determine the actions we take as they pertain to others.
Ultimately, the best way to have dignity ourselves is to constantly be mindful of the dignity of all of those around us.
Arie Hasit, a rabbinical student at Machon Schechter, serves as the spiritual leader for NOAM - the youth wing of the Masorti Movement in Israel. He lives in Jerusalem.