Rabbi Marc Gellman writes about religion for Newsday.
Q Why is it Jews don't kneel to pray? I'm Jewish myself, and sometimes I feel the need to pray in this position, but I feel awkward, as I was taught not to do this.
-- L., via email
A The Hebrew Bible has evidence of kneeling in prayer. In Isaiah 45:23, we read: "I have sworn by myself, the word is gone out of my mouth in righteousness, and shall not return, that unto me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear ..." Also, we have a reference to King Solomon: "when Solomon had made an end of praying all this prayer and supplication unto the Lord, he arose from before the altar of the Lord, from kneeling on his knees with his hands spread up to heaven" (1 Kings 8:54).
Perhaps because kneeling was done on stones, and stones were used to make idols, an anti-kneeling sentiment is evident in the Bible, as we see from Leviticus 26:1, "Nor shall you install a kneeling-stone in your land, to bow down upon it." (See also Psalm 95:6 and II Chronicles 6:13.) Today, kneeling is very rare in Jewish prayer, although bowing from the waist while standing in prayer is one of the most common elements of Jewish prayer.
The ancient practice of kneeling in prayer is honored in orthodox synagogues on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur afternoons. The liturgy recalls the ancient temple sacrifices and the way the high priest and the people would prostrate themselves (lie face down on the floor) when the name of God was said, so the congregation kneels on towels or newspapers, or even a bit of sand. This preserves the prohibition of kneeling on stone floors.
The basic reason Jews don't kneel any other time in prayer is because kneeling became associated with Christianity. The proof text is Philippians 2:10-11: "At the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father."
We can also see a kind of anti-standing sentiment in the teaching of Jesus in Matthew 6:5-6: "And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, they have their reward. But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly." (It is important to understand that Jesus is condemning pride, not posture, in this text.) For Jews, not kneeling became a way to differentiate Christianity and Judaism, particularly in the early days of Christianity.
Churches often build kneelers into their pews to make kneeling easier. There's also a prayer posture called genuflecting, which, in Roman Catholicism, involves kneeling on the left knee only for high clergy, and on the right knee for the Eucharist when it is in the tabernacle, and to kneel on both knees when the consecrated host is visible. Three genuflections are made by the priest celebrant: after the showing of the host, after the showing of the chalice and before Communion.
While these customs changed slightly after Vatican II, the double kneeling before the Eucharist remains a Catholic custom, as it is among Anglicans and some Lutherans.
Although it's still possible to receive Communion while kneeling, it is most often received while standing. Interestingly, in the Eastern Orthodox church, bowing is common, but kneeling is not a customary prayer posture, although it is a part of ordination ceremonies.
The obvious image of kneeling as an act of respect and submission to a higher power make kneeling and prostration important elements in prayer for many religions. Kneeling and prostration are important in Islam and Hinduism.
I'm a great admirer of Muslim prayer (salat). It seems to me to strike a perfect balance between allowing the individual penitent to both be alone in his or her own spiritual place while also being together in a unified religious community through the use of common and coordinated public postures in prayer in the two cycles of prayer called rak'as.
My own view is that if we're alert, grateful, calm and focused more on what we've been given than upon what we still want, our bodily posture doesn't matter. Our prayers will rise to God, and whether they change God, they will surely change us.