Book Chat: Letters to President Clinton

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.


Farming the Biblical Way

Touted as a “squash rock star” by Laura Matthews on her blog, Punk Rock Gardens, Tom Culton, 30, has not only appeared on the David Letterman show but he has participated in Sotheby’s “The Art of Farming” auction along with the gracious-living guru Martha Stewart.  He has been featured in The Philadelphia Inquirer and Bon Appetit magazine.  He supplies his heirloom and other weird-looking vegetables to local upscale restaurants such as  Vetri, Zahav, and The Farm and Fisherman in Philadelphia (the latter recently garnered a three-bell rating from the Inquirer’s food critic, Craig LaBan) and to celebrity chefs such as Thomas Keller and Daniel Boulud in New York City.

What the other media interviews do not mention is that Tom is a devoted member of the River Brethen Church, one of only two remaining Old-Order Mennonite communities in Lancaster and in New Paltz in upstate New York.  Members of his family have been living in Lancaster County since 1740, but several generations back they were dissatisfied by the leadership and dropped out.  Tom is the first one in his family to return to his ancestral faith.  According to Wikipedia, the River Brethren oppose war, alcohol, tobacco, and worldly pleasures.  They also observe the Sabbath– on Saturdays, like the Jews–  in which they do not work.  Tom scatters extra grain for his chickens before the Sabbath, just as manna fell in double portion for the Jews in the desert.

Tom grew up farming but it was in his teens that he understood  “it’s one of the most important roles” he could have in the world.  After his mother’s death in 2001, he found solace in farming– nurturing something while Nature nurtures him in return.  “Growing food is one of the beautiful things in the world, even when it can be a dark place,” said Tom.  His mother bequeathed to him the ancestral home (his father had left them when Tom was only three days old), and Tom ventured to turn his family farm– previous crops had been tobacco and carrots– to a more sustainable future.  His grandfather, now 81, has come to see the folly of his post-war generation relying on chemicals without  regard for the environmental impact.

Faith is a very important factor in Tom’s life.  It gives focus, strength, and understanding.  He “doesn’t look for answers in man-made solutions, but in God’s solutions.”  The farming life is so insecure, affected by unpredictable weather conditions and capricious market prices.  Farmers can easily lose faith in the face of difficulties but Tom turns to prayer during the sad times (deaths and relationship woes), crops failures, and husbandry diseases.

It is in church on the Sabbath that Tom feels embraced as a farmer.  In fact, his fellow church  members are all farmers, but he is the only organic one– and the one with the highest yield from his land.  Once a contractor for a fellow church member ventured to drive his truck through Tom’s land– with its access road that “would have saved him $5 in gasoline” costs– but Tom saw the guy in time and ran to block access, standing him off  “like the student protestors in Tiananmen Square (China).”  He was cursed roundly for his unneighborly action, but the unheeded drips from the guy’s pesticide-laden truck (and the wheels) could have cost Tom his organic certification or at least incur a hefty fine.

Tom has tremendous respect for the elderly and the ways of old.  His grandfather lives with him.  The senior Culton is not enamored of speaking to outsiders but he enjoys puttering on the farm.  He also cultivates his own saffron plot– for his favorite rice dishes– a therapeutic crop requiring a labor-intensive harvest of the stamens.  Respect for the elderly was also demonstrated by his church when their Bishop suffered a stroke.  To maintain his dignity, he and his wife were sent to a remote farm (away from bustling Lancaster) owned by a church member to live out his days in pastoral peace.  Ancestral ties are maintained through family burial plots on his property, a right protected by his church. In another affirmation of tradition, Tom is refurbishing his family’s buggy, which he plans to use on his wedding day when he meets the lucky gal who cherishes a farming life.  The River Brethren were among the last of the Mennonites to give up their buggies.

Organic farming can give comparable or better yields than conventional agriculture but it does demand much more labor.  Tom grows alfalfa, which is dicey to grow without pesticides, as feed for his dairy goats and as a cash commodity as well as a cover crop for fixing nitrogen (a natural alternative to petroleum-based fertilizers).  Every five years (in contrast to the seven years between Shmittah (Hebrew for “release”) years in the Jewish tradition), he takes out his alfalfa and rotates his crops in the fields.  He has located a French company that uses certified non-GMO (genetically modified organism) corn to produce biodegradable plastic for agricultural purposes.  It’s much more expensive, priced at $400 for 5,000 square feet versus $89 for the conventionally produced plastic.  Tom has seen farmers take the lazy way and simply plow the regular plastic under their land, where it doesn’t ever completely degrade but which does chip off and get into our food and water supply.

How did he learn to farm the organic way?  When he began farming seriously, it was already in his DNA.  So, he did not read much, because it was really just common sense.  “You go with your heart” and do what is only sustainable for your land.  It has become a “very religious experience” to come to realize that modern research has confirmed his wholehearted experience on the farm.  Tom recently got his first computer and was able to search on the Internet for the correct spelling of the Red Piriform tomato (with ribbed shoulders) that was previously thought to only grow in the Ligura region of Italy but which Tom has succeeded in cultivating and supplying to his chef friends. On Tom’s kitchen table is a bobble-head figure of Mark McGwire, the discredited baseball player who admitted to steroid use last year, to remind himself that people still prize natural talent– and by extension,  natural food– without chemical enhancements.

Tom has one high-top (plastic-covered tent) greenhouse without any heating source and one that is heated by waste oil, processed by him (centrifuged to remove impurities) on his land.  He collects the oil from the area restaurants, which pay him to take the waste oil off their hands.

This year, Tom has the assistance of Matthew Yoder, recently returned from a stint in Maine and newly adopted into the River Brethren faith, and Ian Osborne, an “English” young man not of the faith– just as Jews might distinguish between themselves  and the goyim (Gentiles).  Matthew brought his knowledge of crops that thrive in New England and the two of them have planted heavily on the 53 acres of the Culton Organics farm.  What are his favorite crops?  Fava beans– or just about any bean– and artichokes with its purply, thistly flowers.

Tom’s plans for next year comprise of a reduced reliance on produce and the introduction of ducks and geese (for the eggs and meat).  His farm now supports 15 chickens (only two of which are now mature enough to lay eggs daily), a small flock of goats, and one turkey.  Most of the goats are milk-producing animals, but one lone billy goat was allowed to retain his horns and escape castration (which adversely affects the taste of the meat).  Why was this one chosen for the sacrifice (his eventual slaughter)?  He was the mean one of the flock.

Tom and his friend, Michael Solomonov, the chef at Zahav and a recent winner of the prestigious James Beard award, plan to tour Israel together.  Does he wish to see the Christian religious sites?  No, he is willing to follow Michael’s lead; besides he is more interested in seeing the Jewish historical sites.

You could taste the delicious dishes made from the heirloom vegetables from Culton Organics at area restaurants and you may meet Tom and Matt on Sundays at the Headhouse Square Farmers’  Market (open from 10 am to 2 pm at Second and Pine Streets).  Be sure to bring your smile or he’ll charge you double.