Bowing plays a regular part in Jewish prayer, and, for many Jews, the High Holy Day services involve complete prostration. While the Hebrew Bible frequently mentions genuflection before God, the action is quite foreign to modern Western society; the philosopher Immanuel Kant even described it as “contrary to human dignity.” But to Avital Levi, bowing has profound ethical and religious significance:
Bowing elevates us by shaping us into servants of God. . . . God is a king whose aim is to rule with justice and charity, and the rule of any king is only made possible by the king’s servants, who assist him. Like a human king, God, [in the Hebrew Bible, does not] carry out his plans alone. . . . God oversees the actions of others, but He needs human beings who will take charge, command, lead, and act as an example so that His charity and justice will prevail.
This is why we find that the individuals who are called servants of God in the Hebrew Bible are those who use their position, power, and influence to carry out God’s goals. For example, God chooses His servant Abraham to found the Israelite people because he knows Abraham will teach his children God’s way of doing charity and justice (Genesis 18:19).
Thus the biblical commandment to serve God is not a commandment to be a slave. Rather, it is a commandment to use one’s power and influence to serve God by keeping his laws and carrying out his will.
When we bow down, we hide our eyes that help us see danger and understand our surroundings. This helps us focus on and be aware of the limits of our power and understanding, as well as our need for leadership and assistance. We place ourselves in a position that lowers us before someone else, and makes us vulnerable to them, by exposing our backs and limiting use of our arms and legs. We thereby acknowledge that someone else is more powerful, allowing Him to take charge and direct us.