I don’t get out much and felt it a great holiday treat to go to a theater to watch The Life of Pi, based on the book I read many years ago that remained in my memory. It took director Ang Lee 4 years to make the film—perhaps this helps explain why other directors passed on adapting this acclaimed 2002 novel to the screen. My usual criteria for seeing a film is when enough people say to me, “You have to go see…” In addition, promoting The Life of Pi, were the many students asking why the ship and life boat in the story bear the name. Tsimtsum? This word is a one of the central teaching of Kabbalah—the Tsimtsum (or Tzimtzum) being the act of God’s contraction that provides the space for creation.
In the movie, (I don’t remember if it is also in the book), the main character, Pi, tells us that he teaches Kabbalah. So, although the ship is a Japanese freighter, author Yann Martel clarifies that indeed the word is coming from his familiarity with Hebrew, not Japanese. Martel explains:
“I wanted a representative scoop of religions in the book – Hindu, Christian, Islam. I would have loved to have Pi be a Jew, too, but there are no synagogues in Pondicherry. So I chose Tsimtsum as the name of the Japanese cargo boat because, although it sounds Japanese, it is a Hebrew word.”
Interesting partial answer. Of all the Hebrew words he could pick, why Tsimtsum?
Martel though seems partial to partial answers—ambiguity that causes us to search inside ourselves as to what version we see in the story (or word) he presents. One reviewer of the movie concludes that the Life of Pi story is set up for us to consider, “which version of the world we prefer; the one where we make our own way and suffer through the darkness via self determination, or the one where we are aided by something larger than ourselves.” Pi himself says that his story will make you believe in God. Here too lies ambiguity—which version of God will you believe in?
Lili Zohar and I have just finished the first semester of our new curriculum Holding Opposites—it is an experimental year long class to help students explore their relationship with considering partial answers, ambiguity and paradox. Most of all, it is our ability to stretch our ability in appreciating both sides of any story—and to realize that truth itself is one story.
Tsimtsum is a story, about God and us. For kabbalists it is THE story, the truth about how we came into being. If what happened on the lifeboat (in Life of Pi) called Tsimtsum is left open for interpretation, what other versions of an event 15 billion years ago may also account for our origins?
On the vast sea of questions we are never alone, though we may feel adrift at times.