In his autobiography, President Bill Clinton writes that during the Lewinsky scandal, he took refuge in a select group of spiritual writings. “On most of the nights when I was home in the White House, I spent two to three hours alone in my office,” he recounts, “reading the Bible and books on faith and forgiveness, and rereading The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis, the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, and several of the most thoughtful letters I had received, including a series of mini-sermons from Rabbi Menachem Genack of Englewood, New Jersey.”
So, who is Menachem Genack? He is the CEO of the Orthodox Union’s Kosher Division, the largest kosher certification service in the world. He is the rabbi of a synagogue in Englewood and teaches at Yeshiva University. He is also “Bill Clinton’s rabbi,” a title conferred upon him by the former president in his foreword to Genack’s new book, Letters to President Clinton: Biblical Lessons on Faith and Leadership. The two met while Clinton was still governor of Arkansas and have remained friends ever since. In Genack’s new book—which features enthusiastic blurbs from New Jersey Senator-elect Cory Booker, former Sen. Joe Lieberman and Israeli President Shimon Peres—the Orthodox rabbi publicly chronicles this relationship for the first time.
“I think [the book] demonstrates certain qualities about the president,” Genack told me. “First of all, that he can maintain, over a 20-year period, this kind of relationship and interest in a tradition that’s not his own—after all, he’s a Southern Baptist—speaks very much to his intellectual curiosity and openness.”
The book, Genack adds, is also a testament to one of Clinton’s lesser-known qualities: “his striking familiarity with the Bible.” As historian Jonathan Sarna writes in his introductory blurb, “Bill Clinton appreciated the Bible more than any American president since Abraham Lincoln.” The book offers many examples of this facet of the president’s personality. Genack recalls how in one of his letters, he included a reference to the biblical story of Judah and Tamar, but mistakenly cited it from Genesis 28. When Clinton wrote back, he gently pointed out to his rabbinic respondent that the account was actually found in Genesis 38.
Martin Marty, the noted Lutheran theologian, tells a similar story in Genack’s book about a meeting of Christian leaders at the White House in 1994. “Several people at the table said they were praying for the president. He asked what they prayed for. A prominent evangelist said he was praying from the following verse in 1 Chronicles: ‘If my people, which they are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin, and will heal their land.’ The president correctly said, ‘I believe that is in Second Chronicles.’” (And it was.)
Genack speaks very highly of Clinton, whom he calls an “extremely caring and gracious person, interested in people and interested in things beyond his own experience.” But the rabbi does not shirk from the elephant in the room: How can an Orthodox rabbi maintain such a close friendship with a politician infamous in many circles for his personal improprieties?
“I think the answer is that we as Jews believe that when God judges us on the days of judgment—Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur—he doesn’t just look at our weak points, our sins, he measures everything in context,” says Genack. “That’s true not only about Bill Clinton, that’s true about all of us, because we all have our sins and personal foibles that we are ashamed about, and you have to understand every person in context. If we would only view a person at his nadir, at his lowest point, that would be a terrible way to view people and the world.” An entire section of the book, “Sin and Repentance,” is devoted to this very subject.
But one of Genack’s favorite anecdotes in the book has nothing to do with Judaism. It’s the story of how his 5-year-old son asked Clinton to find his stolen bicycle. “Shortly after becoming president, he was trying to put his budget together, and he had a lot of difficulty getting it passed,” Genack recalled. So the White House summoned supporters to Washington, D.C., to help with the lobbying effort. Genack was one of them, which is how he found himself sitting around the table with Clinton and other federal officials, and called on by the president to speak.
“I told him that we had gotten my son, then 5 years old, a new bike, but he had left it on the baseball field and it was stolen. So the day before I left for the White House, my wife was tucking him into bed and told him, ‘Daddy’s going to the White House to meet the president.’ And he said to her, ‘Don’t forget to tell Daddy to tell the president about my bike.’”
“Of course,” Genack continues, “this was when Clinton was having such a difficult time initially and was being called a failed president. So when he called on me, I said, ‘Mr. President, I want you to know that there’s at least one person in this country who thinks you’re omnipotent, but he’s only 5 years old.’” He chuckles. “It elicited a laugh from the president, but not a bicycle.”