Let­ters to Pres­i­dent Clin­ton: Bib­li­cal Lessons on Faith and Leadership

Rab­bi Men­achem Genack, ed.
  • Review
By – December 10, 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.

Wal­lace Greene, Ph.D., has held sev­er­al uni­ver­si­ty appoint­ments, and cur­rent­ly writes and lec­tures on Jew­ish and his­tor­i­cal subjects.

Discussion Questions