Letters to President Clinton: Biblical Lessons on Faith and Leadership

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clintonLetters to President Clinton: Biblical Lessons on Faith and Leadership
Edited by Rabbi Menachem Genack
Sterling Ethos/OU Press
New York, 2013
288 pages

Reviewed by Richard Joel

 In Letters to President Clinton: Biblical Lessons on Faith and Leadership, Rabbi Menachem Genack offers insight into the special relationship forged between himself and former President Bill Clinton during his time in the Oval Office. The full extent of his appellation of “Bill Clinton’s rabbi,” with which President Clinton himself begins the foreword of this book, is revealed to the public in this groundbreaking record of official correspondence. Throughout Clinton’s presidency and beyond, Rabbi Genack sent the president scores of divrei Torah on timely issues, elucidating the day’s challenges through the prism of Torah. In turn, President Clinton carefully digested these lessons and often sent back handwritten comments, some of which are reproduced in this volume. Through this remarkable relationship, the Jewish ideas and Torah ideals—reflecting the mission of both the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary and the OU—made their way directly into the Oval Office. This fascinating compendium serves as a moving reminder of just how far American Jewry has progressed when Jewish ideas and Torah ideals may freely enter the intellectual milieu of the most powerful leader in the free world.

Rabbi Genack’s special relationship with President Clinton is a dramatic demonstration of someone able to flavor the president’s thoughts with Torah perspectives. The range of topics covered in this volume demonstrate the various and varied ways in which Rabbi Genack sought to enlarge the scope of President Clinton’s thinking and, presumably, enable him to navigate difficult decisions informed by some of the timeless values of our ancient tradition.

Rabbi Genack saw this unique rapport not as a means to advance his own thoughts, but as an opportunity to expose the president to a variety of approaches by culling letters and submissions from additional Torah personalities. The range of prominent Jewish leaders and luminaries—among them Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, the Honorable Judith Kaye, Cynthia Ozick, Nobel laureate in chemistry Roald Hoffmann, former Ambassador Daniel Kurtzer and others—ensured that the president steadily engaged with Jewish values throughout his years in office.

But Rabbi Genack’s book serves as much more than a documentation of personal correspondence. As a compendium of short think pieces on many aspects of communal life—and through its discussions of important topics such as leadership, sin and repentance, creation, community and education, faith, dreams and visions and holidays—the book serves as a primer for how the Jewish people can productively and meaningfully infuse our Torah into society.

The section on Sin and Repentance reminds us that Scripture is a guide for real life, teaching mere mortals a path to increased sanctity. Those who remember former Senator Joseph Lieberman’s public scolding of President Clinton will see in his contribution, “Night and Day,” a different side of their close relationship. He writes, “After the night comes the day, with its promise of salvation and the hope for a new and better tomorrow.” These letters remind us that the Torah is a source of inspiration and aspiration, counsel and consolation, providing an avenue for personal transformation and redemption.

We cannot relegate Torah . . . to the confines of our study halls. We must allow it to spill out of those halls in abundance, as it colors the way our leaders lead, our thinkers think and our society functions, at all levels and in every imaginable way.

Education, an endeavor with which I have a special relationship, receives its due in the book as well. In line with President Clinton’s groundbreaking education initiatives, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, eloquently states that “freedom . . . is a constant endeavor, throughout the ages, to teach those who come after us about the battles our ancestors fought . . . . Schools are the strength of a civilization, the guardians of its heritage and hope.” We build the future by conveying our values and vision to our students, our future leaders, to whom we must eventually hand over our faith, dreams and destiny. In a similar vein, I am reminded of the meeting I attended with President George W. Bush, Clinton’s successor, for a discussion along with other Jewish educators. President Bush explained the goal of higher education as a means of preparing students to compete in the global economy. I responded with my personal belief that the purpose of higher education must encompass more than economic considerations; instead, it must ennoble and enable our students. To which the President responded with words I would not soon forget: “Ennoble and enable—I like that.”

In an ultimate sense, Letters to President Clinton stands as a poster child for the eternal and universal relevance of Torah. It demonstrates that when we seek to lead on a national and global scale—not just within the Jewish community—we only stand to gain from injecting the wisdom of Torah into the intellectual discourse. We cannot relegate Torah to its immediate environment, to the confines of our study halls. We must allow it to spill out of those halls in abundance, as it colors the way our leaders lead, our thinkers think and our society functions, at all levels and in every imaginable way.

This simultaneous engagement with both modernity and tradition is a fundamental tenet of Modern Orthodoxy. We encourage our young people to live lives of wholeness and integrity lived deep in the wide world around them—not despite their traditions, but because of them. Rabbi Genack, a proud graduate of and revered teacher at Yeshiva University, compellingly demonstrates the importance of that simultaneous engagement. This book is the story of a Jew and a Christian, both leaders and scholars, who share a passion for the wisdom of the sacred text, seeing in it Divine guidance for enhancing and elevating the world. Their conversation is one for the ages—as an example of a fruitful intellectual exchange, as a symbol of the great biblical tradition of the United States and as a lasting testament to the notion of Torah-informed engagement with the world around us.

Richard Joel is the president of Yeshiva University.

Listen to Rabbi Menachem Genack speak about his latest book at www.ou.org/clinton-book.

The following is excerpted, with permission, from Letters to President Clinton:

Judah and Joseph
Menachem Genack, February 12, 1996

Like a red thread going through the Bible and the Talmudic tradition is the confrontation between Joseph and Judah over who will be the progenitor of the Royal House. We feel the tension below the surface, as Judah approaches Joseph to plead for Benjamin (Gen. 44:18).

It is remarkable that Jacob bequeaths royalty to Judah (“The scepter shall not depart from Judah”—Gen. 49:10), rather than to his beloved son, Joseph. Joseph, after all, seems so suited to royalty, by temperament as well as experience. Joseph is perfect in every respect. He does not succumb to temptation. He is resolute and rules with brilliance and magnanimity over Egypt. Why then is the mantle of the kingship and leadership given to Judah, and ultimately to his scion, David?

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, the preeminent Jewish theologian and Talmudist of the twentieth century, suggested that Judah is chosen for kingship because he is able to admit a mistake. According to the classical tradition recorded in the Talmud, Judah is chosen by God to be the forbearer of the Davidic Dynasty, and the Messiah, when he admits his relationship with Tamar (Gen. 28:26). In fact, the etymology of the name “Judah” is derived from the Hebrew “to admit.”

Inherent to the human condition and our finitude is that we make mistakes and missteps. The critical element of leadership is the capacity to admit a mistake, and not be wedded to a misguided and possibly disastrous course. What we seek in our leaders is not perfection or a misplaced self-righteous stubbornness, but rather flexibility, and the ability to change direction in an ever-changing world drama. Humility requires that policies be susceptible to constant reevaluation and midcourse correction.

This was King David’s great strength, and what set him apart from his predecessor Saul. David was capable of admitting error, while Saul always explained away, as he did when confronted by Samuel in the case of Agag (1 Sam. 15).

Lincoln, our greatest President, had a fundamental vision of where he wanted to lead America, but within that context he exhibited extraordinary flexibility. With his nuanced policy toward abolition, he was able to maintain the border states, while retaining the support of the Northern abolitionists. He changed commanding generals until he found Grant, the right one, to whom he gave his full support.

It is ironic that President Clinton is often assaulted by his Republican critics for waffling and changing policy, when his ability to adjust to new circumstances and political reality, while remaining true to his basic vision, is the mark of real leadership.

Dear Rabbi Genack:

Thank you for writing on Judah & Joseph. I went back and read Genesis 38, and took your words to heart.

I am grateful for your wisdom and support.

Sincerely,

Bill Clinton

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In his essay about the biblical story of Judah and Tamar, Rabbi Menachem Genack mistakenly cited a passage as being from Genesis 28. The president, who has a firm grasp of biblical literature, responded with a note that tactfully corrected the citation to Genesis 38.

This article was featured in Jewish Action Winter 2013.

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