Robert Caro is one of my favorite historians. His biography of Robert Moses, The Power Broker, is one of my all-time favorite books. For the last generation (!) he has been working on a multi-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson. 

In this morning’s New York Times, Caro wrote a moving (and lengthy) op-ed piece about Johnson’s 1965 speech that propelled the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Noting that Johnson’s 100th birthday was yesterday (and of course that this week also coincides with the passage of women’s suffrage, and MLK’s March on Washington), Caro writes that King had tears in his eyes as we watched Johnson’s speech. At the same time, he reminds us of the historical moment we witness tonight with the first nomination of an African American for President of the United States. I was probably not alone in having tears in my own eyes as I read Caro’s moving account.

What particularly struck me was the fact that the people involved in this story–King, Johnson, Kennedy before him, and the countless ordinary people who did extraordinary things in those times–what made all of these people remarkable was that they didn’t just use words, they used their bodies. They marched in the face of violence. They moved their bodies to the front of the bus. They walked into Little Rock High School in spite of lethal threats. 

The fact that these acts were embodied makes a difference. Yes, ‘young people’ today are better activists than we were in the previous generation. Yet much of that activism happens through and as a result of the Internet. And while it’s wonderful that people are text-messaging each other or changing their Facebook pictures to show their support of political candidates, that kind of ‘activism’ isn’t in the same league as the kind that involves physical risk. It’s an activism of personal, not communal, expression. 

Don’t get me wrong–the internet can be a wonderful and powerful force for good. (You wouldn’t be reading this without it, for one thing.) But it’s important to remind ourselves that the truest activism comes about when it is embodied, when it involves physical labor and physical risk. The same is true with Jewish life: It’s not enough to be Jewish through status updates, expressive and powerful as they might be. At the end of the day, those expressions have to lead you to do something, and you have to do it with other people.

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