By Hannah Lee
Anticipating a weekend in which we honor two great presidents— George Washington and Abraham Lincoln— I bring your attention to a book by Rabbi Menachem Genack, chief executive officer of OU’s kosher certification program. Letters to President Clinton: Biblical Lessons on Faith and Leadership portrays the unlikely path that Rabbi Genack took in becoming the spiritual advisor to Bill Clinton.
The two men met during Clinton’s first presidential campaign, when Rabbi Genack, in his dual role as congregational rabbi in Englewood, NJ, was asked to introduce then-governor Clinton at a local fundraising event. In his remarks, Rabbi Genack referred to President George H. Bush’s difficulty with the “vision thing” (as documented in a Time magazine article by Robert Ajemian). He quoted from the book of Proverbs (29:18): “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” Governor Clinton appreciated the remarks and told Rabbi Genack that he intended to refer to the verse in his speech accepting the nomination.
Over the next few years, Rabbi Genack would be invited to joint prayer meetings, delegations to the Middle East, and state dinners. For each event, the rabbi would prepare a brief essay with insights from the Bible that address national issues facing the president. During the president’s second term, Clinton asked for a more formal and regular schedule of delivery of the essays. The rabbi then reached out to his personal network of Biblical scholars, clergy, and prominent individuals to contribute their own thoughts on contemporary messages found in the Biblical canon.
Bill Clinton is himself well versed in Biblical text. As one example, Rabbi Genack sent an essay about the biblical story of Judah and Tamar in which he mistakenly cited a passage as being from Genesis 28. The president responded with a note that tactfully corrected the citation to Genesis 38. Other notes on White House stationery reported appreciation for the wisdom imparted and the timeliness of their lessons.
Clinton and his staff were also sensitive to the observance of his rabbi and his fellow Jews. The signing of the 1998 Wye Accord between the Israelis and Palestinians was on a Friday afternoon. Clinton was heard on a televised broadcast urging the team to expedite the process because the sun was setting and it was almost Shabbat. Even more remarkable was the occasion when Pope John Paul II was to meet the president at the White House and the staff noted that the date, October 4th, 1995, was to be Yom Kippur. Rabbi Genack received a call from the White House inquiring if it would be offensive to the Jewish community if the meeting were held on their sacred day. He reassured them that since neither the president nor the pope were Jewish, the issue was moot.
They enjoyed a mutually appreciative friendship. The essay of December 26th, 1996 came after a turbulent year for the Middle East peace process in which President Clinton served as mediator. It cited the Torah portion (Genesis 42-45) on Joseph’s dealings with his brothers in Egypt. Joseph orchestrates the reunion of his brothers to Egypt and upon witnessing their transformation and how they are now able to protect another son of Rachel, Benjamin, he reveals himself as their estranged and forgiving brother— bringing a complete reconciliation. “Leadership takes wisdom, patience, and determination,” wrote Genack, praising Clinton as someone “who is firmly committed to the vision of peace.”
The essay of September 1998, written before Rosh HaShanah, addressed the unique category of a leader’s sin. It is not simply a private matter that requires the same sin offering as the sins of the common people. “Also, as opposed to all others, where sin is a possibility, the Bible states that the sin of a ruler is an inevitability. With power comes the requirement to make decisions, and inevitably among them will be mistakes, misdeeds, and transgressions.” The Talmud offers the consoling message: “Fortunate is the nation whose ruler brings a sin offering (Horayot 10b).” Genack wrote, “The ruler who has the courage and humility to recognize his sin and ask for forgiveness will receive atonement and even redemption.”
The essay of May 2nd, 2000 (during the second term and after Clinton’s acquittal by the Senate of all perjury charges) addressed the issue of truth, citing a passage from the Talmud that taught an interesting distinction between the Hebrew words for truth, אֶמֶת, and falsity, שֶׁ֫קֶר. The former is formed from three letters from the beginning, middle, and end of the alphabet, while the latter is formed from three letters that are adjacent to each other in the alphabet. The insight offered is that שֶׁ֫קֶר, or falsity, results when someone with a narrow perspective claims to have the whole truth. But human beings are limited in our conceptual abilities. Genack wrote, “Genuine truth, אֶמֶת, is the result of bringing different points of the spectrum, in this case the Hebrew alphabet, together.”
Published in October, the book includes a lovely forward by Bill Clinton and an enlightening preface by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, then chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth. The letters include contributions from notable and quotable people such as Israeli Supreme Court justice Elyakim Rubinstein, former Ambassador (to Egypt and Israel) Daniel Kurtzer, and historian David McCullough. It is fine reading on the lessons the Bible can offer on leadership, personal morality, and communal responsibility.