Not long ago, much of the world watched as Austrian skydiver Felix Baumgartner—working for a project called Red Bull Stratos, sponsored by the eponymous energy drink company—jumped to earth from a 24-mile-high helium balloon in a record-setting free fall that broke the sound barrier. The feat set YouTube records and scored an advertising coup for Red Bull. Yet there remains a critical question about this performance by what one magazine called the "God of the Skies": did it violate Jewish theological or halakhic norms?
When space travel first began, Jewish scholars debated its propriety. The detractors quoted Scripture: "The heavens belong to God, and earth He gave to man." God gave humankind permission to use Earth's resources, they argued, but had granted no such permission regarding the upper atmosphere, let alone space. Some repeated the cautionary tale of the Tower of Babel, whose builders foolishly said, in one talmudic version, "Let us go up (to the sky) and settle there" (Sanhedrin 109a). Others cited Isaiah's condemnation of Nebuchadnezzar: "You said in your heart 'I will climb the clouds, I will be like a High One'—but you will be dragged down to the pit . . . .” (Isaiah 14:13-15) Space travel was seen as an act of hubris, descended from ancient fetishes with moons and stars, a modern secular religion.