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Writing Divrei Torah To President Clinton: An Interview with Rabbi Menachem Genack

Rabbi Genack and President Clinton (Photo by Robert Cumins)

Rabbi Genack and President Clinton (Photo by Robert Cumins)

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When most Americans think of Bill Clinton, the Bible is probably not the first thing that comes to mind. And yet, as Rabbi Menachem Genack – CEO of the Orthodox Union’s Kosher Division – discovered two decades ago, the former president is quite familiar with the Book of Books and has often sought solace and guidance in it.

Rabbi Genack first met Clinton at a fundraiser in New Jersey in 1992. “At the time,” Rabbi Genack recalls, “there was a lot of discussion about President Bush’s lack of vision, so when I introduced Governor Clinton I said, quoting a pasuk from Mishlei, ‘Where there is no vision, the people perish.’ Clinton liked the remarks and said, ‘You know what? I might use that in my acceptance speech at the convention.’ He did, and ever since Rabbi Genack and Clinton have been friends.

Rabbi Genack is more than Clinton’s friend, however. To some degree, he has served as his rabbi, and over the last two decades Rabbi Genack has sent Clinton numerous “divrei Torah” that he believed Clinton might find enlightening. After Clinton won a second term in 1996, Rabbi Genack began asking other rabbis and noted Jewish thinkers to pen short essays for Clinton’s benefit as well – including such personalities as Dr. Bernard Lander, Cynthia Ozick, and Rabbis Ahron Solovechik, Immanuel Jakobovits, Israel Meir Lau, Julius Berman, and Norman Lamm.

These divrei Torah may originally have been intended for Clinton’s eyes only, but several years ago Rabbi Genack thought that “just as they were useful to Clinton, maybe they’ll be useful to the public.” The result of that thought is Letters to President Clinton: Biblical Lessons on Faith and Leadership, containing over 100 miniature essays on such themes as leadership, faith, dreams and vision, and sin and repentance. Released last month, the book includes a foreword by Clinton and a preface by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

The Jewish Press: What inspired you to start writing letters to Clinton and what gave you the confidence that he would actually read them? After all, many Americans probably think of writing to the president but don’t bother, figuring their letters will just wind up in a secretary’s wastebasket.

Rabbi Genack: Well, he would often invite me to the White House and we became pretty good friends. Also, I didn’t mail the first letter I gave him; I handed it to him. I’d say the first 20 or so were handed to him. The Secret Service, though, thought that was unseemly, so President Clinton [arranged for me to send my letters through] different contacts in the White House.

How often did you send Clinton these letters?

Usually every other week.

How do you know Clinton read them?

First of all, if you look at the book, you’ll see that he responds to many of them in writing. Also, in her blurb to the book, Ann Lewis, who was the director of communications to the White House at the time, writes that I was once late in sending a letter, and President Clinton said to her, “It’s been a long time since I’ve gotten a letter from Rabbi Genack; what’s happening?”

By the way, in his memoir, My Life, Clinton mentions that among the things that gave him support during the period of the impeachment were the Bible and these mini sermons that he got from me.

Many readers may be surprised to learn this. After all, people don’t usually think of Clinton as a religious man.

Well, the word religious means different things for different people. What I indicate in the book is just that he’s very familiar with the Bible. I’ll tell you two stories. There was once a meeting in the White House with representatives from different Christian denominations and one of them said to Clinton, “Mr. President, I’ve been praying for you.” The president said, “What have you been praying?” So he quoted a verse and said, “It’s from Chronicles I.” Clinton corrected him and said, “That’s in Chronicles II.”

There’s another story concerning Ron Brown, who was the secretary of commerce under Clinton and was tragically killed in a plane crash. President Clinton went over to the Commerce Department to make some remarks in memory of Brown and asked his staff to find out what his favorite biblical verse was. They came up with something but they didn’t know the source and it was sort of paraphrased. Clinton looked at it and said, “Oh, this is from Isaiah, I prefer the King James translation,” which he in his remarks, unprepared, cited by heart.

Where did Clinton attain his biblical knowledge?

First of all, he’s extremely smart. It’s hard to quote a book to him that he hasn’t read. He’s constantly reading. And I guess maybe it’s part of the Southern Baptist tradition [to know the Bible].

Is it true that he asked you for advice when the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke?

I don’t want to presume that I’m the only one he spoke to – obviously he spoke to a lot of people – but he did ask me what I thought he should say when he addressed the nation. I told him he should express profound remorse but I also said that presidents have a right to privacy.

The Midrash asks, “Why is it that animals can’t speak?” and answers that if they could speak, they would tell our foibles and failings – since they are all over the place – and no one could survive. So the point I wanted to derive from the Midrash is not just that privacy is a right, but also that it’s an existential need.

[Incidentally], that actually was not such good political advice because Clinton did mention that presidents have the right to privacy, and he was criticized for it.

In his preface to Letters to President Clinton, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks writes that Jews should be more active in sharing the truths of the Torah with the wider world. Do you agree?

I agree that the Torah has something to say about how we live our lives and that it has a universal message that is meaningful beyond our own daled amos. Adam HaRishon and Chava are buried together with Avraham and Sarah, and Rav Soloveitchik said this indicates that we’re interested in mankind. We’re part of Knesses Yisrael but we’re also part of humanity, and we do have a message.

In fact, the basic documents of the United States [are based on] Jewish ideas – the dignity of man, “tzelem Elokim.” These ideas were absent in the pagan world. So we can be proud that it was Jews who gave this to the world.

The letters in this volume are basically theological or ideological in nature. Why didn’t you take advantage of your friendship with Clinton to write to him about specific issues of concern to the Jewish community, such as the imprisonment of Jonathan Pollard?

There were such letters. In terms of Jonathan Pollard, I was actually the one who spoke to him initially about reviewing the Pollard case. I spoke to him about Pollard several times, and I think he was sympathetic in thinking about it.

In terms of why that’s not in the book: It didn’t belong in the book. The book isn’t about politics. It’s about biblical themes. But I can tell you, having traveled with President Clinton several times and having spoken to him and seen him up close, that he has a tremendous affinity and love for Israel.

It’s interesting you say that because many supporters of Israel dislike Clinton. While the Oslo Accords may have originally been Israel’s idea, it was widely perceived in the 1990s that Clinton pressured Israel into making concessions to the Palestinian Authority.

I disagree with that perception. I don’t think Clinton ever pressured Israel.

How about when Benjamin Netanyahu was prime minister in the late 1990s? He clearly seemed ambivalent about Oslo at the time and many thought Clinton prodded him to make more concessions to Yasir Arafat than he otherwise would have.

I’m not a foreign policy expert. It doesn’t make sense for me to debate Oslo with you. But I can tell you this – and this is true of both Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton: They have a deep affinity for Israel.

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About the Author: Elliot Resnick is a Jewish Press staff reporter and holds a Masters degree from Yeshiva University’s Bernard Revel School of Jewish Studies.


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