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Book Review: Letters to President Clinton: Biblical Lessons on Faith and Leadership,

 

Rabbi Menachem Genack, In Letters to President Clinton: Biblical Lessons on Faith and Leadership  Sterling Ethos/OU Press, New York, 2013. 288 pages, ISBN 978-1-4549-0791-6. Price: $24.95

President Bill Clinton is in many ways one of the most iconic and beloved presidents of recent history. His congenial manner combined with his ability to speak directly to the people without the help of a teleprompter (unlike some presidents), illustrates how he loved to communicate with people.

Yet, for all of Bill Clinton’s great talents, his life in the White House revealed a man who had human flaws that were reminiscent of King David, or perhaps even King Solomon of the Bible. Combined with his legion of critics, Bill Clinton’s presidency was severely marred by scandal during his second term in office. The rest of the kings of Israel made Kings David and Solomon seem like paragons of virtue in comparison.

Great people frequently have feet of clay. This is, of course, a perennial theme of the Bible. Even the greatest people of the Tanakh suffered from moral defects of varying degrees. Moses loses his temper on a regular basis. By today’s standards—he might have been a candidate for anger management, along with YHWH, whose outbursts of anger results in the destruction of cities and continents.

In the Bible, even God makes mistakes (Gen. 8:21).

Rabbi Menachem Genack is an impressive writer. His newest book,  In Letters to President Clinton: Biblical Lessons on Faith and Leadership, reveals much about the ethical passions of Rabbi Genak. His book will greatly enhance any rabbi’s sermons on the weekly parsha or High Holidays.

A number of prominent rabbis and Jewish leaders added their voices and ensured that the President would be find the words of Jewish wisdom inspirational and relevant to the days he spent in solitude during his term as President. Essays from Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and others—makes this book intriguing to see; think of it as a record to future generations to read.

The chapter headings in the book underscore the overall arching theme of the book. For example, “Leadership,” “Sin and Repentance,” “Creation,” “Community,” “Faith,” “Dreams and Vision,” and “Holidays.”  Christians in particular will probably enjoy how the rabbis expound many of the most familiar biblical stories from a Jewish perspective.

Here are a few choice examples that caught my attention. Judah in the Bible personifies strength and moral leadership. Yet, he did not always possess these traits. Like Jacob, his father, Judah is a hybrid of darkness and light. ”There is no light without shadow and no psychic wholeness without imperfection” and this adage certainly applies to all of various biblical personalities from Adam to Solomon, and countless others. The spiritual process of individuation (becoming a whole and integrated human being) requires that we face our shadowy self that hides beneath a veneer of piety and self-righteousness.

Even early on in the biblical story, Judah emerges as a born leader; his brothers look up to him; they listen to his advice; he commands their attention. Although he was not the firstborn son like Reuben, he might just as well could have been—judging by his demeanor and etiquette.  Yet, despite his natural gifts of leadership, he also has a dark side that is almost as cynical as his father’s. When the brother’s turn against Joseph, plotting to kill him, it is Judah who says:

  • So Judah said, “What will we gain if we kill our brother and hide his body?
    Let’s sell him to the Ishmaelites and not harm him. After all, he is our brother.” And the others agreed. When the Midianite merchants came by, Joseph’s brothers took him out of the well, and for twenty pieces of silver they sold him to the Ishmaelites who took him to Egypt. (Genesis 37:26-28)

In a section entitled, “The Ascent of Judah,” Norman Lamm points out a priceless insight  when Jacob blesses Judah on his deathbed. He notes that Judah’s greatness derives from the fact that he “rises from his failures. He atones for his sins and goes on to greatness. He redeems himself. The same Judah who counseled his brothers to sell Joseph into slavery now offers his own freedom and his very life to save Benjamin, Joseph’s full brother . . .Judah has now overcome his deficiencies. He has learned from his  mistakes. Judah is a study in growth, in development, a case study how to overcome moral vulnerability and emerge all the stronger” (p. 79-80).

Every time I read this book, I always learn something new and inspiring. I am certain that you will too.

I rate this book 5*out of 5*.

Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel, spiritual leader of Temple Beth Shalom, is the author of The Lord Is My Shepherd: The Theology of the Caring God (Jason Aronson, 1996) and Birth and Rebirth Through Genesis: A Timeless Theological Conversation (Createspace, 2010) and four other books on Jewish theological, biblical and Talmudic subjects.  He may be contacted at michael.samuel@sdjewishworld.com



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