Ceremonial Violence:
A Psychological Explanation of School Shootings
Jonathan Fast, Ph.D.

 © 2008 by Jonathan Fast
Overlook Press, NY
ISBN 978-1-59020-047-6

When the Columbine school shootings happened on April 20, 1999, I was teaching Music in a high school in the Bronx.

Fast book coverA high school teacher normally has 5 teaching periods each day. I don’t know how many of us knew what was happening on the actual day (around 1:00-2:00 PM EST), but by the next day, April 21, staff and students came in as fully informed as was possible at that point. I understood that it was on everyone’s mind. To try to teach my subject without acknowledging what had happened would have been insensitive to my students’ feelings. So, I began each period by giving the class a chance to talk about it.

Now, 15 years later, I don’t remember whether I taught at all that day, or whether those discussions took up the entire period. The students must certainly have talked about being saddened by it, but what stands out in my mind is the one boy who said that he was afraid it could happen in our school, too, 2000 miles from Columbine. It was an eye-opener for me: They didn’t feel safe.

School shootings have become a part of modern life.

The school as a sanctuary of inviolable safety is no longer the strict norm that it was in past decades [other emotional issues, like bullying and child-abuse, notwithstanding]. It’s not that school shootings happen with the frequency of ball games in season; it’s that they happen at all. A relative handful of incidents leave us with the lingering feeling: It could happen anywhere, at any time, on any day.

Why do school shootings happen?

The Talmud states simply:

“One doesn’t sin unless a spirit of folly enters him [or her].” [1]

It means that for the average person, who understands social and cultural norms, something “irrational” must overpower him or her for them to do something that they wouldn’t do under better circumstances. It’s as if something from “outside” them (us) overpowers them (us).

That terse, simple statement reflects that the “spirit of folly” can feel to us like a mere momentary loss of impulse-control.

Yet, it’s equally understood that wrestling with and mastering the “spirit of folly” can often be no easy or short-term thing to do.

The Musar movement of Rabbi Yisrael Salanter made it clear that “personal change” requires prolonged ongoing effort.

Modern psychology, beginning (arguably) with Freud, taught us to recognize that many emotional factors and personal events, over a long period of time, can contribute to a state of mind that finally expresses itself in an act of violence. But, although conditions around us can be contributing factors, the ultimate source of our choice of actions isn’t “outside” us at all, regardless of our subjective experience. Nor, given the same pre-conditions, does everyone respond the same way.

Dr. Jonathan Fast has written a book that helps describe and explain common factors in school shootings. A Social Worker and a published novelist, he brings both skill sets to this task.

He begins with the professional experience and clinical questions that led him to write this book.

When I was a high school teacher, I saw fights break out more than once; had weapons been available, these “fights” might have become something worse. Dr. Fast isn’t writing about students who have a seemingly sudden “breakdown,” followed by harming one or more other students. Instead, he’s writing about “school rampages” (“SR’s”), that typically involve considerable pre-planning. He calls such SR’s “ceremonial violence” — incidents that take time and planning, and follow several successive features in common; almost as if the enactors are performing a ceremony or ritual (somewhat like Robert De Niro in “Taxi Driver,” for example).

He proceeds to recount several violent episodes in detail. Here, his writing reminds me of Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood” or Norman Mailer’s “The Executioner’s Song,” in which the empirical facts of an incident are recounted in a carefully constructed, but emotionally objective, narrative style.

It should be mentioned here that this book was written before the Newtown, CT, shootings by Adam Lanza. I don’t know if Dr. Fast added an appendix about that in later editions. It’s also a fact that Adam wasn’t a student at the school, as were Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold in Columbine HS, for example. But one strength of this book is how accurately Dr. Fast identifies features of previous rampages that were present in the Newtown shootings, too.

Finally, Dr. Fast writes about what could be done in the attempt to minimize the possibility of future rampages.

Why should rabbis be informed about this? (I say “rabbis” because that’s largely the community I write for. However, one could just as easily pose the question for ministers, pastors, imams, priests, etc.)

First, whether we’re congregational or independent clergy, school violence is always on people’s minds. We must address that rather than ignore it. It’s our role to make Judaism relevant to the lives of those we serve; to “apply the teachings of Judaism to the problems of everyday life,” in Rabbi Morris Lichtenstein’s words. Now might not be the time for lofty sermons (and other teaching opportunities) about ideals. Instead, it might be the time to use sermons, etc., to educate people about the spiritual resources that Torah offers to help us go through stress with greater ease and to approach change systematically. As Dr. Fast writes:

“…SR shootings resemble other kinds of predatory mass murders such as suicide bombings…and terrorist attacks. The deep understanding of such types of violent behavior may be one of our most important tasks as a global community in the 21st century.” (p. 12)

“Understanding” — not merely about why and how such things happen, but about how we can help those with the potential to do it and, sadly, help those who are the victims and survivors of it.

Then, too, one deterrent to SR’s is to reach out and include those who are often excluded in the school or social environment. In how many Hebrew schools (and day schools?) is there exclusion or rejection of some students, rather than a welcoming, all-including environment?

For that matter, in congregational life itself, how often are there “cliques” even among the adults? I’ve heard — and seen — many times the painful consequences of adults excluding or rejecting other adults and their families. The hurt can go on for a lifetime. Dr. Fast’s book can help sensitize us to the profound hurt that such “casual” rejection can create, even if it doesn’t culminate in violence. It also speaks to the need for each member of a congregation or class to be more empathetic to everyone around them. It’s not enough to talk about “empathy” from the pulpit (assuming that it’s being discussed at all). We must show our congregants and students specific ways this can be applied in their daily lives.

On a procedural note, schools are now required to have “safety plans” in place. If something happens — who do you call? Where do the students go? What does the staff do?

Is there any such pre-planning on the part of congregations and day schools, after-school Hebrew school programs or adult education classes? Should there be a cell phone available immediately in case of emergency during services (rather than the rabbi having to get to his/her office phone)? Is there any training for clergy and staff to recognize “leakages”(see p. 238) — small messages that are often given in advance of an SR which, if taken seriously, might help avert a disaster? Is there an anti-bullying campaign and education — for children and adults?

For example, reading this book in a congregational adult education class, with added discussion of Jewish sources that speak to the issues raised by Dr. Fast, might serve a high educational purpose. Perhaps it could encourage self-examination that leads to positive change within the mini-community of an individual congregation.

Another possibility could be (advisably) reading this with older students in day schools and “Hebrew high school” (post-bar mitzvah) programs. Here the emphasis could be not only on understanding SR’s, but on how the present students themselves can best handle hurt feelings and other negative experiences that are all too often part of life.

“Ceremonial Violence” can inform us as clergy and as human beings about the deeper feelings of those around us.

We can only be better as individuals and communities by becoming more sensitive to these.


[1] Sotah 3a