"Please Rise"... but What If I Can't Stand During Prayer?
I’ve often been taught that as the people of Israel, named after our forefather, we are meant to struggle with God. It just never occurred to me that could include the struggle to remain upright.
I recently asked a number of rabbis why we stand during certain prayers during worship. They told me:
“We stand in order to show respect to God.”
“Standing helps us to highlight the central parts of the service.
“Standing is actually the norm from a period when services were much shorter. We’ve since added in sitting parts.”
“Standing brings us physically closer to God.”
I was slightly disappointed by these answers.
Since discovering a passion for Judaism at 8 years old, prayer has been a central part of my Jewish experience. I loved attending Shabbat services with my family, and I was always eager to stand for prayers, especially as the ark was opened.
This began to change at 16, when standing for long stretches started to bring me dizziness, fuzzy vision, and vertigo. By 20 years old, I could barely stand for five minutes without fainting.
That summer, I was diagnosed with a disability – a dysfunction of the autonomic nervous system, which controls all the functions of your body that you never think about. Not fainting, it turns out, is chief among those functions.
Just a few months after my diagnosis came the High Holidays, 10 days that require the most standing out of the whole Jewish calendar. Each time the rabbi asked us to rise, I braced myself and, as I stood through a lengthy Avinu Malkeinu prayer and an endless Torah procession, my grip tightened on the pew in front of me and my vision swam. “You may be seated” became my favorite words.
In the past few years, many rabbis have transitioned from “please rise” to “please rise if you are able.” I appreciate the acknowledgment that not all of us in a congregation are able-bodied, but despite the olive branch, I continued to rise for every prayer. The truth is that I don’t look sick. Nobody who look at me and could know I’m disabled. It’s one thing to feel like a 20-year-old living in an 80-year-old’s body; it was another to admit it to my entire congregation.
But what does it mean for my prayer if I don’t stand? Am I less respectful of God? Am I further from God than the rest of the congregation, standing all around me?
The Amidah, which is the central set of prayers in a Jewish worship service, literally means “to stand.” Clearly, rising ourselves up is an integral part of our prayer. But maybe we can redefine how we envision our ascent.
For those who are able to stand, the tradition is perfect just the way it is. Those of us who aren’t able can instead focus on raising the intention of our prayer. The parts of the service where we are asked to rise are meant to be the most important parts. We can pray with utmost intention. During songs, we can raise our voices. And we can talk to our rabbis about finding a solution in each of our congregations that is meaningful for us and for our entire community.
I am no longer as sick as I used to be. These days, I can comfortably stand through the Sh’ma and Amidah and Aleinu, but I am not the only one who has struggled to rise during prayer. I am not the only one who hides my disability because I am embarrassed or ashamed or fear disbelief. I am not alone, and when we rise up to speak out and share our stories, truly then do we rise above our limitations.
February is Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month, a unified initiative to raise disability awareness and support efforts to foster inclusion in Jewish communities worldwide. For important resources created by top disability experts, visit the Disabilities Inclusion Learning Center, created by the Union for Reform Judaism in partnership with the Ruderman Family Foundation.