Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Good Posture

We begin the year with a post that reflects what we have learned from our survey: You are interested in the personal conversations we have as we develop our responses to the sacred texts. This conversation began when Tziporah emailed Yasmina to ask about attending Friday prayers at the mosque.  Grace joined in, agreeing that the email exchanges formed the backbone of a blog post.  While we continue to add new texts on Wednesdays, we invite you to join our conversation by commenting below or responding to the survey
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Whatever beings there are in the heavens and the earth prostrate themselves to God, with good will or in spite of themselves; so do their shadows in the morning and evenings.”
(al-Ra’d 13:15)

When I visit the mosque, I always feel a little awkward during the prostrations because this is not a typical posture of Jewish prayer.  Jews used to prostrate—known in the literature as “falling on one’s face”—as a sign of devotion and humility.  Most notably, when the High Priest entered the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur, he used to prostrate and ask forgiveness on behalf of the people.  Nowadays, some Jews perform full prostrations on the High Holidays in remembrance of this custom, but usually only the leader of the congregation prostrates.  As I understand the evolution of liturgical practice, we gave up prostration after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem (70 C.E.), because the Holy of Holies no longer existed and the rabbis who re-envisioned Judaism pretty much put the Temple functionaries out of work. We still bow at the knee and waist in key sections of the liturgy, but these bows are carefully choreographed NOT to be full prostration or kneeling. The rules against bowing reflect the tendency of the rabbis to forbid “worshiping like our neighbors,” and likely arose as these postures became common in Christian and Muslim prayer.

I understand your feelings about prostration because it is unusual to you—and I am not saying that you should do it—but I wanted to offer some insight as to its meaning in Islam. Muslims are taught that prostration is the position in which they are closest to God because of the humility it represents; it is the physical expression of the submission of the heart. What we say in this position is "Praise be to My Lord, Most-High," three times at minimum. Then we may prolong our prostration to include supplications to God for good health, guidance, etc. The Quran mentions that many prophets prostrated before God. Even the magicians that challenged Moses [Peace and Blessings be upon him] finally relented and bowed low: “So the magicians were thrown down to prostration; they said, ‘We believe in the Lord of Aaron and Moses.’” (Ta Ha 20:70) In fact, the Quran says that all creatures prostrate to God (see above). I included the verses because I knew you would ask me for them! Checking references is a great habit to cultivate, especially in our days when so many things are taken out of context.

I am inspired by your conversation and happy to add some information about physical expressions of prayer in various Christian practices.  Prayer postures vary among Christians of different denominations. However, full prostration is not customary in Christianity except when a monk or nun takes Solemn Vows to lead a monastic life.  Catholics traditionally show reverence at the church altar by bowing or genuflecting, and stand or kneel for prayer.  Protestant Christians are typically more restrained, sitting quietly and reverentially with bowed heads. Pentecostal Christians often raise their arms and hands, sometimes swaying their bodies to welcome God’s Holy Spirit. All of these postures convey the supplicant’s humility and adoration towards God. Some Christians, during and following prayer, make the sign of the Cross over the upper torso, sometimes also signing the Cross three times in miniature on forehead, lips, and heart: “God in my thinking, in my speaking, in my being.”  Because prayer is both corporate and personal, the movements during prayer—like the words of prayer itself—can be highly prescribed or completely spontaneous. 


  1. I grew up in a shul where the rabbi falls korim, that is, prostrates himself completely as Tzipporah mentioned. The radiance emanating from him after humbling himself before the Holy One was contagious. I wanted to feel that.

    So when I became a rabbi, I took on that ritual practice. And it one of the singularly most spiritual experiences. I truly feel God's Presence as I prostrate before the open Ark (where the Torah scrolls are kept).

  2. As a Reform Jew, I have never encountered any Jew lay face down on the ground. It was a practice that many rabbis saw as archaic. But in more recent decades, with the swing to embrace tradition within this liberal Jewish movement, some have reclaimed this practice.

    I find it to be one of the most compelling traditions that I can embrace.

    Franz Rosensweig, a great German Jewish theologian who was planning to have an easier life and leave Judaism until he attended services during Yom Kippur. He wrote:

    "What distinguishes the Days of Awe from all other festivals is that here and only here does the Jew kneel. Here he does what he refused to do before the king of Persia, what no power on earth can compel him to do, and what he need not do before God on any other day of the year, or in any other situation he may face during his lifetime. And he does not kneel to confess a fault or to pray for forgiveness of sins, acts to which this festival is primarily dedicated. He kneels only on beholding the immediate nearness of God, hence on an occasion which transcends the earthly needs of today."

    So, for me, by falling prostrate, I am able to remind myself that ultimate power does not rest in my hands. It is an act of humility and a recognition of being present in a truly awe-some moment.

    Thanks for your post.

  3. Rabbis, thank you for your comments! I am curious about whether you would consider bowing or kneeling in a non-Jewish setting.

    I mostly feel awkward in the mosque because I don't want "to stick out like a sore thumb" as the only one not prostrating. The women are welcoming and always trying to pull me into the line, so that is the moment when I am revealed as an outsider. It is an awe-some moment, too, as I witness their humble worship of God.
    Shalom/Salam, Tziporah