Most people today, certainly North Americans, have a kind of visceral reaction against bowing. I’ve heard people say this in many different contexts: “I don’t bow to anybody or anything. That’s a sign of submission or subservience. It’s groveling. We stand upright, proud. We shouldn’t humiliate ourselves. We’re not worms that we should crawl on the ground before anyone, even God.”
But that’s the point of bowing when one stands before God, or comes into the Presence! The point is we don’t bow to anything else in the creation. We bow only to that which is worthy of being acknowledged as greater than ourselves. As the meditation before opening the ark in the Torah service puts it:
I am the servant of the Holy One, whom I revere and whose Torah (teaching) I revere at all times. Not on mortals do I rely, nor upon angels do I depend, but on the God of the universe, the God of truth, whose Torah is truth, whose prophets are truth, and who abounds in deeds of goodness and truth. In God do I put my trust; unto God’s holy, precious being do I utter praise. Open my heart to Your Torah. Answer my prayers and the prayers of all Your people Israel for goodness, for life, and for peace. Amen.This bowing we do is not sniveling and groveling before the slave master or executioner. It is an act of dignity and honor. It’s an act of humility. An act of surrender of our little self with all its narrowness and pettiness to the One, to a truth that is larger than our tiny little minds can grasp or own.
That’s what Jews are doing when they bend the knee and bow their heads during the Amidah, the silent, standing prayer that is part of each of the three daily services; and what they are doing when on Yom Kippur they, like the High Priest who entered the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement, prostrate themselves when praying for forgiveness. And that’s what Moslems are doing when they kneel on their prayer rugs five times a day throughout the year and with special repetitions during Ramadan, and bow repeatedly, touching their palms and foreheads to the ground. We are all saying with our bodies, “We are not all that is. We do not stand on a mountaintop looking down on everyone and everything else. We stand in awe before the Presence. We are servants of the Holy One, ready to be of service with our very lives.
Fundamentalist Jews and fundamentalist Moslems aside—let them argue about exactly how close to stand and exactly when and exactly how to bow—to me Jews and Moslems are one on this. Even the beloved and wise Abraham Joshua Heschel (May his memory be for a blessing) misunderstood this when in his book on the prophets he compared Islam to Judaism negatively by saying Islam means “submission” and Jews don’t submit, they work with God in the world. We both bow. We both surrender our lives, our selves to the One that we may walk humbly in the world, in beauty, mercy, justice, and truth.