It Aint Over Till…

“If there is nothing for which you would commit murder, you cannot play the role of Lady MacBeth!” 

That is how the now aging opera diva, Maria Callas, dismissed a young, pretty, but not quite ripened, ingenue who aspired to one day take center stage on her own.  She had the voice, yes, and even something of “the look,” but she lacked the life experience to be able to channel the passions depicted by a William Shakespeare or Giuseppe Verdi. 

While this production at the Arizona Theater Company did not intend a spiritual debate, it is significant that Callas insisted “for which you would commit murder” and not “if you have not murdered.”  In religious terms, Callas was echoing the famous line of Jesus: “But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.“ (Matthew 5:28)  In traditional Christianity, to have the thought is to have committed the deed. 

That is not the case in Judaism where the Talmud teaches: “Were it not for the evil inclination, people would not marry nor build houses.”  Here there is the presumption that everyone has a basic energy that can either lead to good or evil behavior.  Sinful thoughts are inevitable in this construct, but it is the actual behavior that determines reward or punishment. 

It is interesting that Sigmund Freud, the father of modern psychoanalysis, agrees with the Talmudic verdict.  Jewish by birth but not really by faith, in “Civilization and its Discontents” Freud argues that all the benefits of civilized society—whether cultural or economic—are the result of channeling sexual energy into socially acceptable directions.  While disagreeing on other matters, so, too, did his one time protege, Carl Jung, believe that everyone has a “shadow self” that needs to be integrated—but not eliminated–into one’s life to avoid unhealthy neuroses. 

Compare these views with that of Eastern religions like Buddhism and Hinduism.  While they recognize the temptations of immoral behavior, they believe the solution is “detachment”–acting in a manner consistent with one’s true nature for the benefit of others and not caring about  reward or punishment.  For example, the Zen bodhisattva” could achieve nirvana and escape all of the suffering of this reality, but refuses to do so until s/he can help all of humanity do the same. 

Note that these three approaches lead to different spiritual mindsets.  In Christianity, no one can avoid sin in thought, so Christians depend on the saving power of Jesus to go to heaven.  In Judaism, everyone can go to heaven, but Salvation is dependent upon the good works—or lack thereof—of the individual.  In the East, heaven is replaced by the mystery of “nirvana,” a mystical state where notions of heaven/hell or reward/punishment are symptoms of spiritual sleep and ignorance. 

Which is the “right” approach?  Lady MacBeth reveals her answer as she prays for the ability to murder: “Come, you spirits, that tend on mortal thoughts. Unsex me here, and fill me from the crown to the toe top-full of direst cruelty. Make thick my blood.  Stop up the access and passage to remorse!“ But maybe to ask “which is right?” is to miss the most fundamental question of any spiritual endeavor.  As Maria Callas herself understood: “Don’t talk to me about rules, dear. Wherever I stay I make the goddam rules.”  Put another way: it is up to us and us alone to choose our values and how we will behave…well, at least until the fat lady sings. 

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