Last night I was privileged to attend a Tai Chi class given by my professor's teacher, Dr. Harvey Sober, a grand master. It was a very good class, and I learned a great deal. One of the members of the class had written a Tai Chi handbook that we used at the college, and the master was throwing him around casually during his demonstrations. It was something worth seeing.
At one point in the evening, Dr. Sober spoke about the importance of developing and maintaining your health. He teaches classes at my college, and said that if you ever wanted to see people in terrible health, you just had to come into the Beit Midrash (House of Study, with the connotation of studying Jewish law), or as he called it, "the Ward." There, you can see "eighty-year-old twenty-year-olds, and ninety-year-old twenty-five-year-olds."
My fellow college students and I knew exactly what he meant, of course. At the college, there are several different types of students. You can identify the hard-core Beit Midrash learners easily enough. They usually spend several hours a day in the Beit Midrash hunched over large books with very small type (aside from their regular university classes). Many of them do not exercise at all and eat poorly, and all of them get perhaps five or six hours of sleep a night—and it shows.
This type of student usually has very pale skin, and his head and shoulders are hunched forward exactly as if they were ninety-year-old women with osteoporosis. Often they have glasses of varying thickness, and most of them already have visibly receding hairlines. Their bodies are usually thin and flabby, and the skin of their fingers, arms and necks looks like it belongs to a senior citizen. Seeing these students for the first time, you would imagine them to be perhaps in their late thirties and in poor health.
That these students were ever allowed to think that they could destroy their bodies for the sake of their learning is a disgrace for the observant Jewish education system. According to the Rambam, we are obligated to guard our health and fitness, so as to better serve God with our bodies. Yet for some reason, this obligation is given short shrift even as more trivial minutia of the law are obsessed over. The result is that those students most knowledgable in Torah are in all likelihood the ones who will die soonest.
Something has gone very wrong with the Jewish concept of the ideal person, and I think we can identify the problem as far back as Talmudic times at least. In Biblical times, the leaders were not only teachers of the Law and prophets, they were also physically powerful. Jacob lifted a boulder that usually took many men to roll; his sons were powerful enough that two of them anihilated the city of Shechem. The prophets of Israel often led armies in battle, for example Gideon and Devorah.
More than that, the leaders were often musicians and poets. King David, the "sweet singer of Israel," is the best example. It seems clear that in those days, the leaders were expected to hold to a standard very much like that of the "whole man" of Greece, combining physical prowess, cultural refinement, mental development, and spiritual perfection.
By the time of the Talmud, something had changed. With the loss of sovereignty, martial prowess was no longer worthwhile. Indeed, the consesus now was that the study of Torah itself made one weaker, and that this was simply the price of being a scholar. Music was discouraged as lightheadedness, and poetry seemed to die out entirely until we had contact with Muslim culture centuries later. Study of the Torah and the law was seen as the only worthwhile pursuit for the leadership, though commercial activities were seen as practically beneficial and "secular" study was deemed necessary to properly interact with outside powers.
One vivid example of the new mindset: at one point, a major rabbi had been kidnapped by bandits. R' Yochanan, a leader of that generation, gave up hope and said that the women should begin weaving the funeral shroud. His associate, Reish Lakish (who before turning to Torah had been a bandit and gladiator), immediately got out his old weapons and said, "They may kill me or I may kill them, but regardless I will try to save the rabbi." He succeeded; but the tragedy of the situation was that it was even necessary for him to go alone. In a previous era, every other rabbi would have been standing beside him from the first moment.
We need to rediscover the ideal of the complete person, fully developed in all aspects, body, mind, and soul. To cripple the body through neglect as you seek to refine the soul is absurdity. Not only that, it is damaging to the nation as a whole. We are not not under the Roman occupation; we have our sovereignty back, and we need to act like it. We can no longer neglect the physical for the sake of the spiritual—if we ever could to begin with.