Arbitrary thoughts, Tzimtzum

5 minute read

The book Life of Pi, written in 2001 by the Canadian author Yann Martel, tells the story of a young Indian boy who is fascinated by philosophy, spirituality, and religious syncretism from an early age. After a devastating shipwreck on his way to the Promised Land (… Canada), he survives 227 (22/7≈3.14≈PI) days on a lifeboat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. To make things spicier, he has to share the narrow-floating place with another passenger, a Bengal tiger. Spoiler alert: the two mammals eventually form a symbiotic relationship in their quest for survival, and they end up sharing some memorable times.

Overall, the novel is enjoyable for children and adults alike. On a superficial level, it’s a simple story about a young man and his temporary bond with a wild and hazardous animal. On a deeper level, the book’s symbols are diverse and meaningful. It’s not exactly a philosophical work of art, or The name of the rose, but it’s certainly not the story of a Mowgli by the sea. Contemplative adults can speculate over the symbols and allegories presented in the book, and there’s generous room for interpretation:

  • A spiritual man is trapped in a sea of uncertainty together with his beastly nature;
  • There is a quest for finding a higher meaning;
  • Hope is a common catalyst for man and beast alike (?!);
  • Elevation and inner peace come through a cathartic experience;
  • etc.

In any case, what caught my attention was the name of the Ship that wrecks: Tsimtsum. It sounds like an invented silly interjection, except it’s a Hebrew word (צמצום) meaning contraction (or condensation). At the core of the Jewish belief lies the idea that God had to contract itself (in his actions) to allow humans to exercise free will. In this regard, he left room for a bit of uncertainty and chaos to manifest so that the children of Adam and Eve could do their gig in the Space-Time continuum. The contraction doesn’t equate with disappearance or effacement; it’s more of a re-calibration to an inferior type of existence, with the end purpose of elevating the low through the efforts of the low.

In 2016, professor Mordechai Rotenberg published The Psychology of Tzimtzum: Self, Other, and God. The books, like the others from the same author, try to melange concepts of psychology, Judaism, and hasidic thought, and to bring to life a new form of psychology in opposition to the Western school of thought (if there is such a thing).

Although following a scientific approach in building up the book, the author cannot detach totally from a particular type of nostalgic mysticism that can be seductive and, at the same time, extremely speculative. On the one hand, this is understandable given Rotenberg’s orthodox family background; he is, after all, a descendant of the first rebbe of Gur on his patrilineal side. On the other hand, I am a little cautious when bits of religion are mixed-up with science, especially when God is in the book’s title. Nevertheless, I found this an enjoyable read, mainly because it dives into unknown territory (for me).

Mordechai Rotenberg defines Tzimtzum as a uni-directional, selfless, conscious act between two parties. One party contracts itself to let the other grow in a way that was impossible beforehand. Through this, a later bi-directional relationship forms between the two, more enduring than a relationship based on pure dominance (of one dominating the other).

The best way to understand Tzimtzum is to consider the relationship between a good teacher and his curious student. For example, if the teacher wants to explain a highly-abstract topic to a student, he must clothe it first in simple terms and use incomplete (or even inaccurate and/or contradictory) definitions. For example, in secondary school, we are taught that Newton’s Laws are universally true. Until we find out that the Second Law of Newton is a particular case of Special Relativity, that holds true only if the speeds involved are much less than the speed of light. In any case, once the student builds up a certain foundation of half-truths, he can continue the learning process gradually. Half-truths, even if sometimes dangerous, are part of the process.

Now, let’s get back to the teacher. Knowledge wise he remains unchanged; even if he simplified the topic, this doesn’t mean he doesn’t possess the whole picture. Through an act of “contraction”, he decides to filter out the problematic details and help the student get a glimpse of the (in)coming complexity.

Without a doubt, initially, there is a rift between the student and the teacher. It’s like the difference between 0 (knowing nothing) and 1 (knowing everything). 1 decides to bring 0 closer by reducing itself to much less so that a bridge can be established. They don’t meet in the middle, 1 descents much closer to 0, so that 0 perceives the lesser 1 as something of his domain. Closer forms resonate better on the basis of their common ground (language). Distant forms will find communication difficult or impossible. At the end of the process, after the student and teacher have created the relationship, we potentially have two 1s, or at least another form that’s closer to 1 than 0.

The act of Tzimtzum is archetypal and, objectively speaking, deeply embedded into our cultures and societies. The village elders, the talented teachers, the good parents, etc., are doing it by default, simply because it’s normal and it feels right. There’s no doubt about that, even if there’s a particular reflex of dominance that stains the selfless act, especially in modern and competitive societies. If you don’t eat your meat, you can’t have any pudding!.

What Rotenberg proposes is to internalize this process of Tzimtzum, make it conscious, and use it as a way of interacting with others. The religious concept can be, of course, left aside.

What is even more interesting is that Rotenberg’s Tzimtzum is not applicable only at an inter-personal level, between spouses, or between children and parents. It also applies to intra-personal interactions, competing inclinations, the present self vs. past self, etc.