I have none of my diplomas hanging in my home. Having learned that in professional circles it’s good to display your credentials, my undergraduate degree, graduate degree, and ordination certificate hang on the walls of my office.
There is, however, one certificate on display in my home: my father’s rabbinic ordination. Signed by three luminaries of the Yeshiva University universe of the 1950s, including Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, “the Rav,” the diploma is testimony to my father’s hard work and determination. At a time when exit exams for ordination were more demanding than they are today, and with the distinct disadvantage of not receiving a yeshiva high school education — there were no Jewish high schools in Pittsburgh in those days — my father, Rabbi David Weinbach, put in what must have been seemingly endless hours of study and preparation over several years to achieve his goals, all the while building a career in Jewish education and summer camping.
My path to ordination was far simpler. I was given the opportunity of Jewish education through high school and beyond (an opportunity that it seemed at times that I was determined to squander). Work was a choice, and I restricted myself to summer camp and synagogue youth jobs, a far cry from my father’s work obligations. And in contrast to my father, whose exit exam was a live interview with a panel of three distinguished rabbis, my course of written exams was easier and less pressured.
The path toward ordination for both of us included extensive study in the code of Jewish law. The code is divided into four sections and deals with almost every aspect of Jewish life. For both of us, competency in certain areas of those four sections was a requirement for our ordination. But once we each had our degrees on our walls, the most important part of our education still was ahead of us.
It is not a rabbi’s command of the four sections of the code that matter as much as what is colloquially referred to as the fifth section — the common sense born of experience, courage, and sensitivity to apply what is written to a complex and all-too-human world that is outside the reach of any book.
For my father, the sensitivities were focused on using his abilities to expand Jewish educational opportunities to the widest range of students. He led an outstanding high school at Yeshiva University, offering a rigorous dual-curriculum Jewish education to the New York area community that he could not have in his youth in Pittsburgh.
And so his ordination certificate is prominently displayed in my home, a constant reminder that it is not about what you know but rather how well you can bring that knowledge to bear in the lives in which you have taken responsibility to share and guide. It is what gives meaning to my degrees and my work as well — to empower all Jews to connect with our tradition, its rituals, and the abiding spirit of the law.
Elchanan Weinbach is the rabbi of Congregation Shaarey Israel in Montebello. He has been a pulpit rabbi for 13 years, a school head for 15 years, and a consultant, presenter, or scholar in residence in New York, Kansas City, and Florida, and at LimmudLA.