Letters to President Clinton: Biblical Lessons on Faith and Leadership

Sterling Ethos  2013


President Truman’s Jewish friend and business partner Eddie Jacobson played a pivotal role in getting the President to recog­nize Israeli statehood. Rev. Billy Graham was close to President Nixon but we don’t know how much of a moral compass he provided. Rabbi Menachem Genack, however, has been a trusted confidante of President Bill Clinton from his campaign days and maintains a deep friendship with him and his family. Over the years, Rabbi Genack has sent numerous letters to President Clinton sharing his insights from the Bible. Eventually the President asked him to have some of his distinguished friends share their insights as well.

The result of this close relationship and exchange of letters is this volume of 102 short missives, 45 of which were penned by Rabbi Genack himself. The panoply of famous Jewish thinkers who were also asked to write letters to the President includes many of the world’s leading Jewish figures, including Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm, Former Chief Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, Ambassador Daniel Kurtzer, Prof. Uriel Simon, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, Dr. Erica Brown, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, and the list goes on. All of the contributors have one thing in common. They are knowledgeable and they can compress their thoughts into a brief, cogent message. The letters are divided into sections that deal with leadership, faith, sin and repentance, creation, community and education, dreams and vision, and holidays.

Through this correspondence, the President reveals himself to be curious, deeply intel­ligent, and a man of faith. By preserving, publishing, and interpreting these letters, Rabbi Genack gives us a peek at a hitherto unknown side of the President’s persona. His familiarity with the Bible—he quotes verses verbatim—is impressive. His written acknowl­edgment of many of the letters shows how much he valued these messages, particularly during stressful times in the White House.

“Clinton’s rabbi” may or may not have had a direct influence on the President’s decisions, but clearly there is an element of guidance in most of the messages. While not strident, Rabbi Genack’s letter about anti-Semitism and peace in the Middle East is one of the finest summaries of reality on the ground vis-à-vis the Israeli-Arab conflict. Similarly, Lord Rabbi Imannuel Jakobovits wrote about the limits of cloning at the time when legislation prohibit­ing human cloning was passed. Many letters are pure intellectual stimulation and the teachings of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik are often quoted. Many seek to explain certain Jewish practices to this Southern Baptist. Cynthia Ozick’s brilliant exposition of Shabbat is but one example.

The President of the United States has much on his mind. He must surround himself with trusted and knowledgeable advisors. However, there are times when he alone bears the responsibility for major decisions. Having a close relationship with someone like Rabbi Genack to introduce him to Biblical and rabbinic ideas and ideals, to expose him to a way of looking at texts in a fresh manner and to engage in a dialogue about spirituality, had to have an impact.

This book is valuable on so many different levels. Aside from the broad array of topics covered, the writing itself is brilliant. President Clinton wrote the Foreword and Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote the Preface.

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