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A rabbi shares how to be changed by general conference messages

To truly hear leads to understanding and then to change, explains Rabbi Joe Charnes

Rabbi Joe Charnes has studied Judaism and Christianity comparatively for many years and has been involved in numerous Jewish-Christian interfaith and multifaith events around the country.

He also frequently attends general conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The Charnes family — originally from Monterey, California — now lives in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where Rabbi Charnes’s wife, Rabbi Sarah Schecter, is a chaplain in the United States Air Force.

In Colorado, they became friends with Michael Law, a member of the Church who extended the invitation a few years ago to attend general conference in person. 

“There’s deep, deep wisdom in your faith tradition,” Rabbi Charnes said. “And the connection that I and my family have developed over the years with your community has been one of the most blessed and meaningful and inspiring connections that we’ve had in life.”

After attending the October 2023 general conference, Rabbi Charnes shared with the Church News what he learned and his advice for studying the talks over the next six months.

Rabbi Joe Charnes during the Sunday afternoon session of October 2023 general conference in the Conference Center.
Rabbi Joe Charnes, of Colorado Springs, Colo., attends the Sunday afternoon session of the 193rd Semiannual General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at the Conference Center in Salt Lake City on Sunday, Oct. 1, 2023. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
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Rabbi Charnes thought Elder Gary E. Stevenson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles offered a wise guide for life in his talk, “Promptings of the Spirit.”

“That world of spiritual gifts requires building, and it requires building from within and receiving from within,” Rabbi Charnes said. “But when he said, ‘assembly required,’ what also jumped out at me was, ‘Yes, we have to work on constructing that holy place in our lives and making a holy place for us to live in.’”

Young Women General President Emily Belle Freeman spoke about having a broken foot during her trip in Israel.

“She said, ‘I believed I could go forward even with my brokenness,’” Rabbi Charnes said. “Her brokenness wasn’t a barrier to moving forward, to progressing. And what a message to youth but also what a message to humans.”

And he reflected on the talk from Elder Carlos A. Godoy, General Authority Seventy, who shared a story about getting into what he at first thought was the wrong taxi.

“We always have a guide out there who’s ready to enter and give us that guidance if we’re willing to hear,” Rabbi Charnes said.

The music during general conference inspired Rabbi Charnes, who said sacred music involves beauty, power and wisdom — it heals, builds, redeems and refines.

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Hear and listen to understand general conference talks

Often the reason people don’t remember a message is because they haven’t fully heard at first, said Rabbi Charnes.

“This is the first and most important quality you have to develop as far as a spiritual life, the ability to hear, that deep ability to hear, to listen.”

Rabbi Joe Charnes and his daughter Yael attend general conference in the Conference Center.
Rabbi Joe Charnes and his daughter Yael from Colorado Springs, Colorado, attend general conference in the Conference Center. | Provided by Michael Law

The Hebrew word for “hear” also means “to understand.” Once people can listen deeply, they can fully understand. And then memory will stick.

“You can’t remember what you haven’t heard. … So hearing is a deeply, deeply dedicated action. It requires real presence and willingness to receive so that we can understand,” he said.

But there’s another meaning of the Hebrew word “to hear.” It also means “to observe” or “to heed.”

“So deep hearing leads to deep understanding, which leads to a life that is deeply transformed, because you’re now living or heeding the will or the wisdom of our Maker,” Rabbi Charnes said.

He advised revisiting the messages more slowly and with more awareness, because they are layered with broad and deep wisdom.

“But it begins, first of all, with a desire to hear.”

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The root and the fruits

Rabbi Charnes said he knows when someone has understood their religion’s teachings when he sees the fruits in their lives.

He said he saw the kindness and the light of members of the Church of Jesus Christ, which made him ask about the root.

“And for me, as I began studying your tradition, I realized the root of your light, the root of your beauty, the beauty of that love that you live, is your wisdom,” he said. He said others don’t often focus on that wisdom; they focus on the kindness and decency of Latter-day Saints.

“But that kindness and decency didn’t just come from nowhere. It came from a wisdom that you are rooted in and that you revere and that you study and that you try to live from. That is the guiding source of your light.”

Michael Law, Yael Charnes, Rabbi Joe Charnes, and Elder S. Gifford Nielsen, a General Authority Seventy, attend general conference in 2019.
From left, Michael Law, Yael Charnes, Rabbi Joe Charnes, and Elder S. Gifford Nielsen, a General Authority Seventy, attend general conference in 2019. | Michael Law

Rabbi Charnes called it a gift and an honor and to be with members of the Church of Jesus Christ.

“Your lives are living and loving testimonies of the holy.”

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