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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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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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