Rabbi Menachem Genack, CEO of the Orthodox Union’s kosher division and spiritual leader of Congregation Shomrei Emunah in Englewood, N.J., has had another, unofficial, title for two decades — “Bill Clinton’s rabbi.” Since the rabbi and the then-presidential candidate met in 1992, they have engaged in what the former president calls “a written dialogue,” an exchange of thoughts on religious and ethical issues.
The correspondence forms the basis of “Letters To President Clinton: Biblical Lessons on Faith and Leadership” (OU Press/Sterling Ethos), which includes the words of the Orthodox rabbi, the responses of the Southern Baptist politician, and contributions by such people as writer Cynthia Ozick, former Sen. Joseph Lieberman and Christian scholar Martin Marty.
This interview is edited from an e-mail transcript
Q: What prepares an expert on the laws of kashrut, and part-time leader of a congregation, to serve as a spiritual adviser to the president of the United States?
A: When I introduced the then-governor at a 1992 event in New Jersey, I said that vision is an essential ingredient of leadership. I cited the verse from Proverbs, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” He told me he would use it; he did, as his central theme in his acceptance speech.
What was the favorite Jewish insight you offered President Clinton?
This is about Lag b’Omer, the day on which the plague that killed all 24,000 of Rabbi Akiva’s students during the 50-day period of counting the Omer, came to an end. The Talmud says that after the death of his students, to quote from my letter of June 8, 2000, “Rabbi Akiva, unbent, traveled to the south of Israel. There he found five new students and taught them the Torah. These five students became scholars, and ultimately teachers, and from them Torah scholarship was rejuvenated.”
It is inherent in Jewish history even in the worst of times to persevere and to see the possibilities of redemption. President Clinton wrote back: “I loved your missive on ‘Rabbi Akiva on the 33rd of the Omer,’ about which I was completely ignorant. It’s as you said a story both inspiring and instructive and it came on a day when I was in need of both.”
The president was known to have some ethical failings — particularly in his relationship with a onetime intern. How did you handle that situation? Did you offer the president moral advice then? Did he listen?
You should never judge a person only by his weakest moment, his lowest point. All of us have our failings and our merits, sins and good deeds. Jewish belief, which is represented by Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, is that God measures with divine scales our good deeds and bad deeds.
When President Clinton testified to the Starr grand jury, he asked me what he should say and I told him he should express profound remorse but also that even presidents have the right to privacy.
As I say in the book, “In hindsight, this was poor political advice, because the president was criticized for not being properly contrite.”
Did you ever try to influence his politics, particularly involving the Middle East situation?
President Clinton was and is an enormous friend of Israel. I saw his love for Israel, and when I traveled there with him on several occasions, it was reciprocated. I sent him some letters about Israel and urged that he speak out about the re-emergence of anti-Semitism in Europe … and to set himself apart from Jimmy Carter’s book on apartheid, which is so offensive. And he acted on that.
Are you still in touch with President Clinton?
Very much so. I just wrote to him, “Tzedek, tzedek, tirdof,” “Justice, justice you should seek.” The Torah says to judge your colleague with tzedek. It means you should compromise. Compromise is a higher level of justice. Some people think that compromise means giving up your identity. The Torah view is quite contrary.