The President’s Rabbi

I first met Rabbi Menachem Genack, rabbinic administrator and chief executive officer of OU Kosher, on the momentous Inauguration Day of 2009. During our conversation in his office, Rabbi Genack could not resist showing me his Lincoln memorabilia and pointing out that President Barak Obama would be sworn into office that day on the historic Lincoln Bible. Many remarkable ideas jump out at me from this treasured encounter, which was the beginning of my ongoing student-teacher relationship with the rabbi.

First, I was surprised to learn that a rabbi of world-renowned Talmudic accomplishment, whose name carries weight in every yeshiva in the world, is an amateur historian of President Abraham Lincoln. Beginning years previously, I had studied Rabbi Genack’s essays on Talmudic law, even acquiring his short but brilliant 1969 book in memory of his father (since republished). I was expecting a rabbi whose sole focus is on the text, not one who waxes eloquently on the thoughts and behaviors of U.S. presidents.

Additionally, I learned about the importance of religious inspiration to many past presidents. Lincoln, who was very devout albeit in a non-traditional sense, summoned much of his great vision and leadership from biblical sources. His speeches are replete with biblical references. They are also full of biblical cadence and spirit, radiating the charm and confidence of the ancient text. Lincoln was foremost, but hardly alone, among presidents who utilized Scripture for guidance.

I was also informed of an ongoing project, at that time over 15 years old, in which Rabbi Genack sent biblical insights to former President Bill Clinton. Among those letters was an essay containing musings on the historical significance of Lincoln’s Bible, which Rabbi Genack discussed with me that day. At first glance, particularly to the uninitiated, this pairing of rabbi and politician seems unlikely. However, on thinking back to the Clinton years, it makes perfect sense. Those were heady times, when the Soviet Union had recently collapsed, when Middle East peace loomed temptingly close, when new technology was turbocharging the economy. We entered uncharted territory, faced a new world order, that posed difficult questions which politicians heatedly debated. More than ever, leadership required vision and wisdom. Where else do you turn for wisdom if not the foundation of Western civilization, the Bible?

The two unlikely friends, the Southern Baptist and the Orthodox rabbi, met at a fundraising event in 1992; Rabbi Genack introduced then Governor Clinton by quoting Proverbs (29:18): “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” Clinton appreciated that biblical thought and incorporated it into his speech accepting the Democratic nomination for President. After that initial encounter, President Clinton invited Rabbi Genack to prayer meetings and official dinners. In advance of those events, Rabbi Genack prepared essays on biblical themes which he gave to the President. President Clinton enthusiastically read each essay, often replying in handwritten notes, one time even correcting a biblical reference.

Over the years, Rabbi Genack enlisted other scholars to write biblical essays for the President. This continual stream of religious insight serves as a reminder of the unique relationship in America between religion and government. While the Constitution wisely prevents government from endorsing religion, it allows for religious ideas to influence political Screen Shot 2015-03-18 at 3.05.17 PMviews. The person holding the most stressful job in the world needs guidance and strength. In the U.S., presidents often find that inspiration in the Bible. This is a country where the President is sworn in on a Bible (of his choosing). The Declaration of Independence openly speaks about inalienable rights endowed by the Creator. Religion is a powerful force of American leadership and freedom.

The essays Rabbi Genack collected are published in Letters to President Clinton: Biblical Lessons of Faith and Leadership (in which I played a small advisory role). Over 100 biblical essays by over 45 rabbis, scholars and leaders—including three Chief Rabbis, two university presidents and one U.S. Senator—offer Scriptural lessons of leadership and faith. This masterful collection of thoughts combines careful reading of the sacred text with profound understanding of the challenges faced by leaders in the complex world in which we live.

The letters Rabbi Genack personally wrote range across a variety of topics. In one essay, he emphasizes the biblical importance of personal privacy. He quotes the rabbis of the Midrash commentary who note that the only animal ever to speak was Balaam’s donkey. Why haven’t other animals been granted this power? “If able to speak, animals would unmask our foibles, our pettiness, our inevitable failings.” Residing in the background, they see too much and would reveal private information. This message is even more timely now than when written.

Faith, the need to look for strength and guidance from Above, the belief that circumstances will improve, represents a continual theme throughout the letters. While in office, President Clinton faced many daunting challenges. Rabbi Genack sent him lessons in faith, biblical messages of sustenance. When God told Moses to challenge the powerful Pharaoh, He said “Go to Pharaoh” in language that sounds like “Come to Pharaoh.” The lesson, Rabbi Genack explains, is that “God is always standing next to us, giving us the strength to endure, and even the potential to be triumphant.”

Aside from Rabbi Genack, the most frequent contributor of letters is Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, the chief rabbi, emeritus of the United Kingdom, who also wrote an impassioned preface to the book. Rabbi Sacks studied bible privately with English Prime Ministers. In these essays, he offers the public a window into his lessons for world leaders. “A leader is one who shows the people where to look—down or up, short-term or long-term, at present dangers or at ultimate destinations. That is perhaps the leader’s greatest power—to influence the mood of a nation.” After pointing to the repeated biblical directive to tell our children about our past, Rabbi Sacks writes, “Moses taught that freedom is more than a moment of political triumph. It is a constant endeavor, throughout the ages, to teach those who come after us about the battles our ancestors fought, and why.”

The sections of the book are arranged topically, including Leadership, Faith, Creation, Community, Dreams and Vision, Holidays and, significantly, Sin and Repentance. Among the challenges President Clinton faced was the impeachment trial that emerged from a personal failing. In sympathetic but honest words, Rabbi Genack teaches the importance of repentance. Everyone sins; a great man learns from his mistakes and grows through repentance. Senator Joseph Lieberman, who publicly criticized the President’s behavior at that time, wrote to the President a reflection on the significance that the biblical night always precedes day (as it says in Genesis, “and it was evening and it was morning . . . “). He profoundly explains, “To appreciate and properly evaluate the gifts of the day requires the experience of the emptiness of the night, because the night teaches us the importance of faith and courage . . . After the night comes the day, with its promise of salvation and the hope for a new and better tomorrow.”

This book is an important source of inspiration and guidance. The Bible serves as a guide to life for even—perhaps especially—those in the most trying situations. It reminds us to stop and reflect, to look beyond our own instincts, to seek insight from the ultimate source of wisdom. This book is also a historical record of the surprising spiritual influence of one prolific rabbinic scholar on the leader of the free world. After leaving office, President Clinton responded to a letter from Rabbi Genack as follows: “I think you know how much they’ve meant to me over the years, and I’m so glad you are continuing to send them.”

The Talmud tells the story of Rabbi Judah’s close friendship with Antoninus, the second century Roman Emperor. They were friends and intellectuals, inspiring and challenging each other to grow. Perhaps future generations will look back at this book and declare Rabbi Genack and President Clinton as the modern incarnation of this ancient relationship, the political leader and his rabbi.