Life of Pi: True Interfaith Lessons

by Rabbi Donald Kunstadt

Debating what movie to watch Saturday night, I was glad we did not follow A. O. Scott’s review in the New York Times of Life of Pi. IMBD rated it quite highly, so we went with that opinion.

I am certainly thankful we went with the latter. Having studied religion at Berkeley, I found the entire movie a delight of open-minded religious synergism that I only wish was shared by more people in the world. Unfortunately it is not, and what is more, world opinion seems to be only intensifying in the opposite direction, toward greater religious ethnocentricity.

See the movie for the delightful play of cinematography and metaphor. It is the story of Pi, who, as a boy coming from a Hindu background, finds the god Jesus in a church, and explores Islam. He finds kindness from a Buddhist sailor, as the family embarks on an ill-fated freighter journey with the family’s zoo in tow. They cross the Pacific on a ship fascinatingly called Tsimtsum. To many, the ship’s name would mean nothing, or they would guess it is Japanese, coming from the freighter’s country of origin.

Tsimtsum, however, comes from the Kabbalah, the Jewish mystical tradition popularized in the 16th century. The word explains that tradition’s teaching on cosmology: the Infinite One, Ein Sof, at one time filled all, but in an act of self contraction, made room for the world as we know, filled with both good and evil, and free will. It is a nice conception that actually could, in some ways, be related to modern theories of cosmology such as variants of the big bang. When I saw that name Tsimtsum while watching the movie, I was pleased. The bad news is that the ship sinks. The symbolism is delightfully open-ended.

See the movie, and pay attention to the symbols, at least with more detail than the New York Times. If only world religions, and more importantly their often radicalized followers, could learn to reason with the mind of Pi.

Rabbi Donald Kunstadt serves as the rabbi of the Springhill Avenue Temple in Mobile,  AL, a position which he has held since 1987.

Originally posted at Finding Meaning