Members and friends of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints participated in the 193rd Semiannual General Conference on Sept. 30 and Oct. 1. Rabbi Joe Charnes, a long-time friend of the Church and an interfaith advocate, attended In the Conference Center to listen as Latter-day Saint leaders offered counsel and direction.
This episode of the Church News podcast features Rabbi Charnes — joined by guest host Church News reporter Mary Richards. He shares his conference insights and speaks about the power of general conference for those of other faiths.
Rabbi Joe Charnes: There’s deep, deep wisdom in your faith tradition. 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. I’ve learned a tremendous amount about the soul and about myself and about life because of our connection. And coming to general conference is like a spotlight on the soul. And it helps us all see so much more beauty and so much more grace and with so much more love upon leaving. And for me, as I began studying your tradition, I realized the beauty of that love that you live is your wisdom.
Sarah Jane Weaver: This is Sarah Jane Weaver, executive editor of the Church News, welcoming you to the Church News podcast. We are taking you on a journey of connection as we discuss news and events of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and friends of the Church just participated in the 193rd Semiannual General Conference, listening to Latter-day Saint leaders offer counsel and direction. In the congregation during general conference was Rabbi Joe Charnes. Rabbi Charnes received his BA in psychology from California State University, Northridge. He went on to study in traditional Jewish seminaries in California, New York and Israel. He has studied Judaism and Christianity comparatively for over 20 years and has been involved in numerous Jewish-Christian interfaith and multifaith events. He’s also been a frequent guest lecturer across the country.
As a member of another faith, he joins this special post-conference edition of the Church News podcast to share some of his reactions to general conference. Mary Richards, Church News reporter, joins him as a guest host. Welcome, Rabbi Charnes and Mary, to the Church News podcast.
Mary Richards: Rabbi Charnes, for this conversation, would you mind if I called you Rabbi Joe? I feel like we’re friends.
Rabbi Joe Charnes: Yes, I would be honored. Thank you.
Mary Richards: Thank you so much. And thank you for being here. It was so wonderful to see you in the Conference Center. We met there in the Sunday afternoon session of general conference this past general conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. And I wanted to ask you: Why did you attend? What brought you to Salt Lake City from Colorado Springs, Colorado, to attend general conference?
Rabbi Joe Charnes: The simple answer is my dear, beloved friend/spiritual brother, Brother Mike Law. Mike Law has been a real gift in our lives, which we will discuss, I’m sure, more. But he has gotten us access to general conference for the last few years. And that’s why we’re physically here. On a deeper level why we’re here — which is what I think you’re asking, what brought us — and we ultimately came from Monterey, California, but our home is in Colorado. Why we ultimately came to general conference is because of a very long connection that I’ve had with the LDS community. And it began very early on, with Brother Mike Law. And we lived in Colorado near him for several years.
And what happened over our time together, as I grew in understanding and the knowledge of your faith, I began to really connect more with your community. And not only the beauty of the work that you do for the world, but the beauty of the soul that your community strives to uncover and discover. There’s deep, deep wisdom in your faith tradition. 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. I’ve learned a tremendous amount about the soul and about myself and about life because of our connection, and how you live, specifically how you live.
So, what I see in your lives, the lives that you live, are the blossoming fruits of your faith, the beauty, the light, the grace, the love and the wisdom. And it’s something that I have grown tremendously as a result of — I am a person of faith. But sometimes we all are blinded by our own beings. And sometimes it takes the light and the brilliance of another to help you see that light within yourself. And coming to general conference is like a spotlight on the soul, or into the soul. And it helps us all see so much more beauty and so much more grace and with so much more love upon leaving.
So that’s why, ultimately, we’re here, because we’ve been invited. But we come back, in addition to being invited, it’s because we’re blessed. We’re truly blessed by being in your presence. It is a gift of glory to come to general conference and be in your community.
Mary Richards: I love how you spoke about friendships between faiths and also these messages you heard that deepen that faith, deepen that conversion. And that spotlight on the soul really, really struck me. I feel like each person can come away from general conference with different promptings, different thoughts, different messages that really resonated with them. I heard messages of faith and endurance and love and comfort. My siblings, as they talk to me, had other things that stuck out to them. What kind of messages in particular stuck out to you from this last general conference?
Rabbi Joe Charnes: Yeah, you know, I love how you said, “different messages,” because it was interesting. Mike and his family and I were speaking after general conference, and I said, “What I’m saying right now for the teaching that is most relevant is the teaching that is impacting me right now. But if we speak in 20 minutes, I promise you, it could be something else, because I’ll be in a different place as a result of this conversation.”
But what immediately I would offer as a wise, wise guide for life was with Elder Gary E. Stevenson. And he spoke in the beginning of his talk about athletes and preparation and how we grow in life; it is through preparation. And then he went on to spirits — they have a gift. It’s clear that they have a gift and a talent. But those talents don’t blossom unless they are worked on. It takes work in life. We have to prepare. And he said so, too, with spiritual gifts. In his language, I believe the exact language was, “They need to be assembled,” something along the lines of — “assembly required”; that’s what it was: Assembly required.
And I thought — the biggest problem I have at general conference is I want to be a little more vocal with “Yes,” but we have to remain silent. So we give our little vocal movements of hands when we’re sitting there. But “assembly required,” that we play a part in building that beautiful, sacred structure called the spiritual gifts. That world of spiritual gifts requires building, and it requires building from within and receiving from within. 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.”
But when he said, “assembly required,” I realized we also need an assembly. We also need a community to have that deep communion with the sacred in that structure that we build so we can receive it more fully. We need each other to build and to dwell so we can have true communion. And I just wanted to say — I know, I know you can’t, but I wanted to scream out — “Yes, brother. Yes, Elder. Amen. Hallelujah. Yes, this is now the Baptist portion of the show.” But I mean it. I loved his words “assembly required.” Thank you, Elder Stevenson.
Mary Richards: Two meanings of the word “assembly.” Exactly; that group but also the building. How perfect is that? What other messages kind of made you want to maybe do a little bit of that shouting?
Rabbi Joe Charnes: I’m going to contain myself in the chair. President Emily Belle Freeman. I know she’s just taken over from President Bonnie [H.] Cordon. Those are shoes that I would never fill. Well, first of all, I’m not a woman. But she is magnificent. She is magnificent. And however the saints and the sages who are led by the Spirit to place people in positions clearly have chosen a beautiful guide for these youth.
And when she spoke — you know, we just spoke about building, assembly required, with an assembly, but we still have to build. The problem very often we have in life, when we want to build, we may have noble hearts that are seeking the holy, but we look at ourselves, we look at our past, we look at our brokenness, and we say, “I can’t. Nothing can build me back. I am too broken.” And when she spoke about her trip in Israel, and she had a broken limb, or she had an injury, and she was going to climb up the mountain, and she needed help, and the guide was a little questioning. And however, to President Freeman’s credit, she said — and this is such an inspiration for all of us when we question whether or not we can rebuild because we’re broken — she said, “I believed I could go forward even with my brokenness.” That’s not the exact quote, but she mentioned all of that. Her brokenness wasn’t a barrier to moving forward, to progressing. And what a message to youth but also what a message to humans.
All of us, we often get tripped up because we’re so broken, and we feel we can’t progress. And so the question is, “Where do I begin?” And then she said these holy words: “Begin where you are.” We have to begin where we are, right here. This is where we begin, not where we were, looking back, because that’s only going to drown us in the past. And not looking at the future or where everybody else who has made it more than we have, we can’t simply look there, because that’s going to keep us where we are, in a very dark state. But begin where we are. That’s where we have to begin, with that brokenness. And brokenness often does cripple us.
But there’s a teaching also from a great rabbi or rebbe, a Chassidic rebbe. And he was a broken man himself. And he said — and I’m slightly adding to it, filling in what I believe he meant — but he said, “There’s nothing more beautiful or whole than a completely broken heart.” And all of the brokenness is what he was referencing, I believe. I added a few words to fill it out. He was broken, tragically broken. He was broken down, but he was also broken open. And that broken open allowed the brokenness to receive the light from above because he was open. So that brokenness that is so often a barrier to life, I think she redeemed very beautifully by allowing us to say, “I can still move forward, even when I’m broken. And that’s where I’m going to begin.” So she really was a beautiful inspiration for all of us. And it was a gift to hear.
Mary Richards: Sometimes we feel anxiety over “I’m not good enough yet,” or “I should already be perfect,” or “All these things have happened in the past,” and we dwell on the past and the future, and we forget about being present, even. And I felt that message from her as well. And I love what you’ve said about brokenness and then that guide; she talked about having a guide on the trail, too, how we need that in our lives as well.
Rabbi Joe Charnes: Yeah, and the guide often is what we miss. You know, Elder Carlos A. Godoy spoke when he was at the airport and he ended up on the, quote, summarizing the story, “the wrong taxi,” and he just happened to meet a former LDS taxi driver. So often in life, we feel metaphorically like we are on the wrong taxi: “What I’ve done, I look in the past; what I could have done, I know my potential. And what I see before me, all of these beautiful people living so successfully. How can I move forward? I got on the wrong taxi. And there’s no way to right that wrong.”
We always have a guide out there who’s ready to enter and give us that guidance if we’re willing to hear, and thankfully, it’s not just us, “Are we willing to hear?” It’s very interesting. He went into that taxi. Hopefully the guides that we need are willing to make that journey that’s sort of out of their normal way. He was willing to go a different way, and along the way, he realized there was someone he needed to meet and help redeem. And that helped redeem him. So it’s a partnership that we go off, and we never are on the wrong taxi. And there’s always someone there to help guide us back if we’re both willing to participate. So that’s another beautiful message that I think we can live with and take to heart, because we all end up on the wrong side of the road at some point. And we need a way back. And there’s always a taxi awaiting. There’s always a taxi awaiting.
Mary Richards: What a beautiful thought. He did notice that he thought, “You know what? This isn’t a mistake. I’m supposed to be here.”
Rabbi Joe Charnes: Yeah.
Mary Richards: And the beautiful change that happened in his life and in that driver’s life together. But this is also something I wanted to bring up: the music during general conference. How powerful is sacred music when it is sung together — in an assembly, really, when we’re listening, when we’re in partaking of that. The music from this past general conference, and then music in your own life, how powerful is that for you?
Rabbi Joe Charnes: Sacred music — I say this for myself, and I’m sure I’m speaking for many. Sacred music, if we truly, truly reflect, we often miss the beauty, the power and the wisdom of that music. It’s not simply a wonderful melody on the radio station that inspires. Sacred music is there to heal and to inspire and to build and to redeem. And so often when we’re singing the hymns or we’re singing our own prayers in melody, or with melody, we’re missing the deeper message. The melody is powerful, but the words themselves also are deep meditations that are meant to guide us into a life of soul and awareness of soul that we’re so often lacking the awareness of.
And the Hebrew word — one of the Hebrew words — for song is “zemer.” And in Hebrew, it’s also related to the word for “to prune.” And the — beautiful, beautiful. You saw it. The idea there is that this sacred music is not just something that is beautiful to listen to. It’s not simply auditory. It’s meant to prune us in the most beautiful way, to refine us so that we can bear more beautiful fruit and sing more beautiful melodies. It’s wisdom in song, guiding us how to live in life.
And very often, we simply focus on the melody, but the melodies and the songs, the hymns that are — I can’t even say “sung,” because it’s not singing; it’s an angelic choir with an angelic community, inspiring the angelic within. And so often, my — we have a Yiddish term, like “my kishkes,” my innards — my innards are twisting. They’re twisting over the beauty and the power of these meditations, these sacred meditations. And it’s a blessing from on high to be able to be in the presence of such song and such light, because it is; it is the light of song, the light of melody, and that melody is still singing. I try never to lose that melody in my life, although I do, so that’s why we come back.
Mary Richards: For that process again.
Rabbi Joe Charnes: Absolutely.
Mary Richards: When I teach in Primary in my congregation, Primary for our younger children, many times the most effective moments — effective might not be the right word — but the most beautiful, poignant moments are when we are singing. And we’re trying to point out to the children, “How do you feel right now?” Because just like you said, you feel something inside. And so if I can help my own children pinpoint or recognize that they’re feeling something in that moment as they’re singing and as they’re listening to music, then that’s the way that perhaps they can start to recognize spiritual messages coming to them. And when they recognize it, they can hopefully remember it.
So, how can we now, in the next six months, how can we recognize and then remember the things we’ve felt and heard? And then, on a two-part question — I just want all your thoughts today — what kind of impact does studying these messages and scripture and music have in our lives?
Rabbi Joe Charnes: I can only say, “Amen” to both questions. That’s the prayer that we all should have in the meditation. It is a meditation that we should have. In fact, one of the Hebrew words for “meditation” is related to the word for “build.” There’s another one that has to do with “isolation” and “separation”; we have two words. But the idea of meditation and building, we want to reflect or ponder, in your language, because that’s what helps build and rebuild.
The question on how we remember is a challenging one, because often the reason we don’t remember is because we haven’t fully heard at first. And in Judaism, the first prayer a Jew learns — and in theory, the last prayer a Jew should say on his lips before death — is a prayer called Shema, and it means “to hear.” On a broad level, this is not what we’re thinking for our 4-year-old child when we’re teaching them this, but we’re giving them the foundation of listening, of hearing. 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. But the Hebrew word for “hear” also means “to understand.” We have to help them be open to hearing. We have to open them up to this way of listening deeply so they can fully understand. And once that begins, that’s when memory will stick.
You can’t remember what you haven’t heard. And the reason we often don’t hear is because we’re not attentive, which is what another Hebrew word has this idea of attentiveness. So hearing is a deeply, deeply dedicated action. It requires real presence and willingness to receive so that we can understand. So once we begin that hearing process, and it’s a prayer we say at least — the prayer to hear — at least four times a day, sometimes five, sometimes six, sometimes more. Because it’s something we all forget. And if we forget, we’re not remembering.
It’s a call to hear. And we cry it out. It’s one of the few prayers, there’s only a few prayers that we cry out aloud in unison in the Jewish tradition. Much more of the prayers, we say them together but more individually. But this is a prayer that is called out in the loudest of voices, together as a unity: “Shema, Shema.” It’s a call to hear, a call to understand; the two meanings of the word “to hear.” But you know what? There’s another meaning of the Hebrew word “to hear.” It also means “to observe” or “to heed.” Because the only way you’re going to live the beautiful messages that are in the prayers or that are in our sacred texts is if we understand them. But we can’t understand without hearing.
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, in the text, in the hymn. That’s the foundation, I think, of all sacred practice, is a — well, there are actually a few pillars, but this is a foundational pillar, that willingness to hear, so that we understand and so that we observe.
So that’s one thing: When you are going over the talks throughout the next six months, are your ears open? The rabbis teach the ears are the gateway to the mind and the doors of the heart. OK? Sometimes we hear with our minds, but it doesn’t transform the heart. We have to allow both heart and mind to receive that wisdom. And sometimes the Hebrew word for “heart” also means “mind.” So it’s heart-mind hearing. It’s a unified hearing of holy, holy wisdom. If we begin by hearing the messages that we may have missed part — and we missed plenty of them during these last two days, where several, several messages were given. So we need to revisit them, but we need to do so more slowly and with more awareness.
It’s not simply what it says. In the Jewish mindset, here’s what the text says. Here’s what the speakers said. And now, how do we uncover the deeper layers of what they mean? They’re always layered, layered depth to the sacred. It’s spiral depths, OK. It’s colorful depths. It’s broad and deep, deep wisdom that is there. And a 6-year-old will hear it differently from a 60-year-old, hopefully. But it’s an enriching depth. It’s an inspiring depth. But it begins, first of all, with a desire to hear, if I could even preface the idea of hearing, like it says in Proverbs, when it says about the beginning of wisdom: The beginning of wisdom is the desire for wisdom. So I come to the text, I come to the talk, and I ask, “Do I have a desire for this wisdom? And is my heart desiring to hear?” I am desiring to hear, to attend, to understand, so I can live with this wisdom in life.
Then — that’s the second part of your question — if we begin with that and slow down, if you get through one verse of “Come, Follow Me” or of a general authority’s talks, one verse will root you in a way that you’ll never, never understand if you go through the whole talk. You can spend an hour, and I do this with Brother Law, we spend time each week on one or two verses, probably an hour. We’ve read the whole section, and then we delve in, and our roots go deep, and that’s where the wellsprings are. Deep wellsprings of wisdom, of light, of grace and of understanding. And not everybody’s interested in that level of depth. But you’ve got to go deeper than the surface to get some nutritive value.
So, remember to hear, incline your ear, open the heart, surrender the heart, to listening. It’s an active-passive process. It’s active in the sense of “I have to participate.” There’s some assembly required, going back to Elder Gary E. Stevenson. There is assembly required; I have to be present and participate. But now I have to surrender and begin listening so I can hear more deeply and then begin to understand, the second meaning, hopefully. I know when someone has understood their text, because I see how they live, the blossoming fruits, the blossoming fruits in their lives. And that’s what I’m so inspired with in terms of LDS thought, not just LDS kindness; yes, everybody praises you for your kindness, because you have to be blind not to see the light and the love that you bring into the world. I don’t care if someone has a theological difference; if they can’t see the light and the beauty that you bring into the world, they have a blind spot. They’re blinded by the light; OK, that’s a famous song. I forget the name of the group, but blinded by the light. Your light is blinding. And the question you always have to ask when you see something that beautiful is “What is 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. People don’t often focus on your wisdom, they focus on the kindness and the decency of your lives. 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. And I wanted to see not just the outer love, the outer grace, the outer beauty, the outer kindness, I wanted to see the source of that.
And that’s what I’ve seen as I’ve been going through “Come, Follow Me.” I’ve seen the roots of that light. Your lives are living examples and expressions and testimonies of the beauty of your wisdom, and it manifests itself in kindness and in love. Your lives are living and loving testimonies of the holy. And it’s a gift, and it’s an honor, and it’s an inspiration to be in the presence of your community, because I have learned a tremendous amount, and it’s been painful to often see my own person, my own life, my own history.
When I look at what you have created and cultivated and developed, you have such a community, and you are a light, a beautiful light, and it’s a gift. And I’m grateful to have been here for this general conference and every other conference.
Mary Richards: And I’m so grateful for your time and to get to know you better, Rabbi Joe, and to have heard of these friendships that you have developed over the years, and it inspires me, too, as I make friends with those of other faiths around the world in my travels for Church News or in my own community here in Salt Lake City. What would you tell people about how to develop and deepen friendships with those of other faiths?
Rabbi Joe Charnes: Wow. The “how” is — look at the model of the LDS community. That’s what you do. And it’s not because you’ve been so well received throughout history. I don’t have to go through your history; we have a similar history. And yet you still reach out, you still seek community. I had an interesting conversation with a pastor once. In the theological spectrum, he was more on the conservative end. And as you know, in certain segments of the Christian world, theologically, there is a parting the way, significantly. And some are more generous or charitable in understanding that, and some, like your friends out in front of general conference, some are a little less charitable, to put it mildly. But I will tell you, as far as how should we go about: bringing or making friendships with others, bringing other communities together, which is what you live to do.
I had an interesting conversation with a pastor on the, again, the theologically conservative side, who’s a decent man. And he asked me one day, “Joe,” he calls me Joe, “what’s up with the Mormons? Why are you so involved with the Mormon community? I understand they do wonderful — yeah, service, fine. But you study with them, and you actually think very highly of their wisdom.” And I said, “Let me ask you a question. Does goodness ever come from evil?” He said, “No.” I said, “Does truth ever come from falsehood?” And he said, “No.” I said, “How about godliness?” which is what we’re all seeking. “Does godliness ever come from the devil?” And he said, “No.”
And I said, “Well, let me just ask you: “Do you see the goodness that the Latter-day Saint community brings to the world?” And he said, “Yes.” “Is that godly goodness, their actions?” And he said, “Yes.” “And is it true how they’re living in service to other human beings?” And he said, “Yes.” I said, “Well, those are the three reasons that I do so. It can’t be of the devil. It can’t be a falsehood, and it can’t be of evil if it’s producing godliness, goodness and truth.” And to his credit — to his honest, genuine credit — he said, “That’s a good point.” But we never spoke about it again. But that’s why. That’s why. That’s the “how.” And I know I’m a better person, and I thank you for the gift of general conference. I pray I am able to experience more of this wonderful, wonderful, sacred time together with you.
Mary Richards: Please come back in six months. Come back to general conference. Rabbi Joe, as our time together draws to a close, we have a tradition on the Church News podcast, where we like to give our guests the last word. And we ask them something I felt that I’ve learned this whole time with you and has woven through our conversation. But we like to ask, “What do you know now?” And we also ask our guests to bear their testimony or give a witness — a witness of God or a witness of their faith. And so, Rabbi, what do you know now about general conference, about interfaith relationships and about God?
Rabbi Joe Charnes: That’s interesting, because you’re right. This whole discussion has been a bearing of my testimony.
Mary Richards: I know.
Rabbi Joe Charnes: Let me ask you, because you also understand commandment. And we have commandment. And the Hebrew word for “commandment” — one of the words; we have many — one of the Hebrew words for “commandment,” also, according to the rabbis, it’s a very creative but semilegitimate, etymological link, the word “command” and the word “to connect” are the same root, because the way we connect to the divine is through the commandment. So my hope for all of us is that God can be in our hearts. And we have that connection. But what God ultimately cares about, and I think we share this, He absolutely cares about this, because without this, what are we doing? God desires the heart. But if that heart is not living a life of commandment, in our thought, you’re not connected fully.
That’s why the two words are the same root. They’re different in English, and they’re different in Hebrew, yet for “command” and “connect,” although we do have a parallel in English: “I enjoin you.” A joining. A commanding, right? If you enjoin somebody, you command. So it’s that same idea in the Hebrew, actually, command and connect; if we truly want to connect with our Maker, we have to live a life of commandment. And so, maybe — I didn’t learn this, though, but I certainly see it lived in your life.
And I know I have a lot more to learn after coming to general conference. And I could offer other ideas that I’ve learned. But truly, I leave you, actually, where I began, with President Emily Belle Freeman. I believe I can go on in my brokenness. And I begin where I am. And what I have so learned is that I have so much more to do, that I have so much more to grow in, and I’m grateful that I have such lights in your community to help guide me along the way. So thank you, and bless you, and shalom.
Sarah Jane Weaver: You have been listening to the Church News podcast. I’m your host, Church News executive editor Sarah Jane Weaver. I hope you have learned something today about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints by peering with me through the Church News window. Please remember to subscribe, rate and review this podcast so it can be accessible to more people. And if you enjoyed the messages we shared today, please make sure you share the podcast with others. Thanks to our guests; my producer, KellieAnn Halvorsen; and others who make this podcast possible. Join us every week for a new episode. Find us on your favorite podcasting channels or with other news and updates on the Church on TheChurchNews.com.