Book Review: Five Cities of Refuge
Stan Denman reviews Mamet's book written with his Rabbi, “reflections on Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy,” the Books of the Pentateuch. Kushner and Mamet make a great team in this worthy effort, due in large part to their kindred abilities to write cogently and effectively concerning the common, the ugly, and the unlikable in sacred passages without compromising a sense of reverence for the text.
Lawrence Kushner and David Mamet. Five Cities of Refuge: Weekly Reflections on Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. New York: Schocken 2003.
In Five Cities of Refuge, Rabbi Lawrence Kushner and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Mamet provide a record of their weekly study partnership with “reflections on Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy,” the Books of the Pentateuch. These Parashoth (weekly readings from the Torah) are related in the form of separate thought-provoking commentaries from each man, rather than as protracted discussions or collaborative Biblical exegeses.
Often their brief observations on the given sacred text are jarringly distinct. For example, in examining a passage from the book of Exodus (20:2-6) concerning God’s demand of monotheistic devotion from the ancient Hebrews, Kushner draws upon the inspired use of the pronoun “I” to bring together a brief but illuminating exploration of the identity of God as the “Self of the Universe, a Self that tolerates and sustains each individual self.” Springing from the same study, Mamet narrows his examination of identity to the race-related cultural phenomenon of “Jewish guilt,” extending his observations concerning the issue to conclusions of culturally-specific and historically-based feelings of responsibility and obligation. So, one man’s observations tend toward the universal, while the other tends toward the specific. This dichotomic diversity is the norm for this work by Kushner and Mamet.
Whereas Kushner’s illuminating thoughts, often innovative and unconventional, stay within an accessible distance from the text of study, Mamet’s musings often seem to stray elliptically from the Parasha and only remain connected in the most tangential way. Some readers who are either unfamiliar with the Torah (what is being argued), or unfamiliar with Mamet’s polemical writings (how he argues), may find it difficult to follow the connections the playwright makes with the original sacred texts being studied. As is expected of Mamet from his other writings (such as True and False among others), in Five Cities of Refuge he goes against the grain of conventional erudition, often with favorable results. Just when the reader begins to feel that Mamet’s thoughts are too elliptical, too tangential, and too unconventional, he strikes upon original critical ground which is altogether inspiring, thought-provoking and quite brilliant. Unfortunately, Mamet has a tendency to state his alternative arguments in such a way that they sound as immutable as the established interpretations.
Regardless, Kushner and Mamet make a great team in this worthy effort, due in large part to their kindred abilities to write cogently and effectively concerning the common, the ugly, and the unlikable in sacred passages without compromising a sense of reverence for the text. Simple and succinct observations by these authors resonate long after the book is put away—“Holiness is being aware that you are in the presence of God (LK),” or “Reason is not the ultimate good, but merely a species-specific survival mechanism, and, like any human mechanism, subject to misuse, corruption, and decay (DM).” Such statements stand in stark contrast to much of the popular humanist philosophy dominating the collective contemporary American psyche, and thus stand out as easy targets for public criticism.
Seen in this light, Kushner and Mamet’s observations may be seen as nothing less than brave. Mamet indirectly addresses potential criticism of such spiritual efforts midway through the book—“To be dismissive of ‘natural’ evidence is called ‘ignorance.’ To dismiss the divine is called ‘sophistication.’” It is stimulating for the reader to recognize that the writers are not only addressing, examining, and deconstructing the text of the Torah, but they are equally addressing, examining, and deconstructing the reader. Following such observations, one cannot read Five Cities of Refuge without feeling that one is being privileged to study with two very intelligent, bold, and inspirational thinkers.
There is only one major weakness of the book. Either intentionally or unintentionally, the authors belie their suggested premise based upon God’s six cities of refuge as recorded in the Torah—“These six cities shall serve the children of Israel as well as resident aliens among them for a sanctuary.” In drawing the metaphorical relationship between the Five Books of Moses and the cities of refuge described in the Book of Numbers, it is assumed that Kushner and Mamet intend to provide five spiritual “cities of solace and safety” for all their readers. However, the persistent ethnocentricity of the work as it refers consistently to “we Jews” and the particularities of Jewish “victimization” tends to alienate non-Jewish readers. Christian or Muslim readers, for example, who share much common ground with the authors as they study the spiritual struggles of the great prophet Abraham, will find themselves reading the text as “the Other.”
Consequently, non-Jewish readers may approach Kushner and Mamet’s Five Cities of Refuge seeking spiritual refuge and find that the city gates are locked to them, only allowing them to eavesdrop from beyond its walls. This is truly unfortunate, for the wisdom within is rich and refreshing and should be more readily accessible to all.
Stan C. Denman
Chair, Department of Theatre Arts