Both philosophers of religion and laypeople tend to assume that prayer is a uniform activity across faiths, cultures, and denominations—even if the content, addressee, and external forms vary. But Avital Hazony Levi, by rejecting this assumption, comes to a novel approach to understanding Jewish worship and the specific activity of bowing or prostration before God:
Religions vary greatly in their conceptions of God, of man, and of the relationship between the two. By trying to define a universal archetype of worship, philosophers unwittingly overlook notions of worship that are different from their own. [Moreover], the philosophical discussion of worship has mostly focused on an individual’s attitude or emotion, thereby portraying worship as part of a one-on-one relationship between man and God that transcends a person’s other human relationships. In contrast, the Hebrew Bible’s notion of worship as bowing down, kneeling, or prostrating oneself in service of God shapes a person to carry out God’s will of bringing justice and charity to human relations.
Just as we cannot know God without referencing human experience, we also cannot learn how to relate to God without reference to human relationships. This explains why in the Hebrew Bible all verbs that direct us in our relationship with God are taken from the realm of human experience and especially from human relationships. . . . The King James Bible uses “worship” to translate the ritualized action of bowing down (hishtaḥavah) [only] when the text is referring to bowing before God, and uses “bow” to translate the very same Hebrew term when referring to bowing before a human being.
Thus worship in the biblical view is not a unique phenomenon that occurs [solely] between humans and God. . . . [It] is a term taken from the political realm of masters and servants because, like human kings, God needs servants who will accept His rule and utilize their knowledge, power, and initiative in achieving His goals.