Maybe it was the madeleine on the cover of his book, “Proust was a Neuroscientist.” Who knows? But I was a huge fan and follower of Jonah Lehrer. Now I have a quandary. Why would someone so bright and talented risk his reputation and career by publishing misquotes and then lie about it? In what way does this revelation reflect on his past work? It seems like such a shame and waste of talent — is this the end of his brilliant career?
No prophet am I — hence you will find no predictions here about the future. But this I do know: Many a career has been skillfully resurrected despite stumbling blocks of the most fatal of character flaws. We Jews are believers in teshuvah — repentance — and this is certainly the right time of year to consider the upending turnarounds called for the mending or retooling of one’s attributes. But wait, we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
Who is this Jonah so fittingly tossed to sea, swallowed by the biting critics and spat out for all to witness, splayed upon the beaches of media mania and left to wither, parched by the scorching glare of the bright lights of scrupulous scrutiny? He, a young promising Rhodes scholar, a writer of two successful books on the connections between science and the humanities, and a very much in demand charming and captivating lecturer.
All this came to an abrupt halt when his research and writing was found to be faulty. Self-plagiarism, lying and then incorrect attribution of Bob Dylan quotes in his latest book, “Imagine” has led to his stepping down from his staff position at the New Yorker, apologies to his readership, and the recalling of the book.
Here is the final paragraph from Michael Moynihan’s startling revelatory piece from Tablet Magazine: “A month ago, when Lehrer’s self-plagiarism scandal emerged, some supporters argued that it was simply the misstep of a young journalist. But making up sources, deceiving a fellow journalist, and offering accounts of films you have never seen and emails never exchanged, is, to crib Bob Dylan, on a whole other level.”
Ironically perhaps he was a victim of his own celebrated reasoning; “a memory,” Lehrer writes, “is only as real as the last time you remembered it.” Jonah, sometimes we expect memories to reflect actual reality, quotes to be real, and explanations truthful not embarrassing deceitful deflections.
What are Jonah Lehrer’s options now? Reflect, repent and regroup. The impending spell of soul searching is arriving in the nick of time, for him as it does for each of us. ’Tis the season to remember, though, that few of us have not bent the truth to fit our own personal agenda. Indeed, one defense offered of Mr. Lehrer is that as a writer he was doing what comes naturally — being creative! Defense in this case however, will not serve to move Jonah to the necessary place of some deep inner work.
Time for a Mussar memo! I offer a few short doses of reality checks to get us each started on our road to repentance. Jonah — you are invited to join the process and embark on a path of soul rehabilitation. Consider how each short memo on specific character traits reflects on the ways that your past behavior fell short, and then commit to bettering your embrace of its teaching.
Let’s start with Truth: God’s seal is truth… Do not allow anything to pass your lips that you are not certain is completely true. One must stand guard even against something which only hints at deception or ambiguity — including lies that are not specifically said and mistaken assumptions which one leads people to make. One must continue to exercise caution until one’s eyes are opened and one sees the beauty of truth, Cheshbon HaNefesh.
Humility: Humility is associated with spiritual perfection; it inspires joy, courage and inner dignity, according to Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook. And a small deed done in humility is a thousand times more acceptable to God than a great deed done in pride, Orchot Tzadikim
Strength: In Mussar, the strength that concerns us is not the power to move mountains, but the strength you need to overcome your greatest challenge: Yourself. Exercising self-restraint has always been difficult. Maybe that’s why a form of the word gevurah — gibor — means “hero” in Hebrew. Self-restraint is nothing less than a heroic act, says Mussar author Alan Morinis.
Silence: In seeking wisdom, the first step is silence, the second is listening, the third remembering, the fourth practicing, and the fifth is teaching others, says Rabbi Solomon ibn Gabirol.
Decisiveness: All of your acts should be preceded by deliberation; when you have reached a decision, act without hesitating, says Rabbi Mendel of Satanov.
Justice: Hillel said, “What is hateful to you, do not to your neighbor.” That is the whole Torah and Talmud.
Calmness: Be very careful in your negotiations with others; cautiously and calmly consider matters before speaking or acting so they do not arouse animosity, says Rabbi Mendel of Satanov.
Self-restraint: Who seeks more than he needs, hinders himself from enjoying what he has. Seek what you need and give up what you need not. For in giving up what you don’t need, you’ll learn what you really do need, says Solomon ibn Gabirol.
Joy: Joy is not merely an incidental result of your spiritual quest — it is a vital component. Finding true joy is the hardest of all spiritual tasks. But losing hope is like losing your very self, says Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav
Kindness: Chesed means being careful of another’s honor and dignity, helping others, having one’s heart overflow with love and kindness, utilizing every opportunity to benefit others, even greeting others with a pleasant countenance, because it makes the other feel good and binds people together in friendship, says Rabbi Chaim Zaitchik.