Did Red Bull Stratos Break a Halakhic Barrier?

By Shlomo M. Brody
Friday, November 2, 2012

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.   

Yet other Jewish theologians heartily supported space travel.  When Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, Rabbi Menachem Kasher published a work titled Ha'adam 'al Hayarei'ah, "Man on the Moon," which called the feat a work of Divine Providence.  He was moved by the Apollo 8 astronauts' reading biblical verses of creation when they orbited the moon and saw Earth rise above its horizon, but he also saw America’s victory in the moon race as a defeat for the secularist Soviets and a potential messianic herald for the embattled Jewish state. 

Perhaps more cogently, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik saw space travel as a manifestation of a God-given instinct to understand the cosmos.  True, as the Psalmist says, "The Earth is the Lord's."  But "to whom," Soloveitchik asked, "did God grant this earth and its fullness?"  He gave this answer: 

To man who studies and comprehends the cosmic drama.  Ownership of the stars, the planets, the dark interplanetary or interstellar spaces, is granted by the Almighty only to those whom make the effort to understand them, to those who are curious about them.

This divinely-mandated conquest, moreover, was not merely intellectual but emotional: "Man is not satisfied sending up unmanned vehicles to gather scientific data.  He is eager to do it himself."  

Not surprisingly, a halakhic literature emerged, particularly after Ilan Ramon became the first Israeli astronaut, relating to questions of ritual observance in space (When do you pray or observe Shabbat when there is no day or night?).  Yet Soloveitchik also asserted, repeatedly, that halakhah sometimes requires man to retreat from his attempted conquests.  One obvious reason is the commandment to preserve one's health.  Moses' exhortation, "Take utmost care and watch yourselves scrupulously," (Deuteronomy 4:15) was understood as directed not only toward spiritual excellence but to bodily health.  "Never should a person stand in a place of danger," declares the Talmud (Shabbat 32a). 

Whether risk-taking is halakhically permissible depends on two factors: prevailing perceptions of the risk and the motivation for the action.  Society accepts certain risks with equanimity; taking such risks is allowed.  Thus, we drive cars, fly on planes, and even undergo anesthesia for elective surgery because the danger is widely perceived as acceptably small.  There is disagreement over whether bungee-jumping and other extreme sports fall into the permissible category.  

The prohibition on self-endangerment was cited by Rabbi Menashe Klein as one reason to ban space travel.  Many would disagree, citing NASA’s attempts to minimize the risks; but few would argue that society accepts as minimal the risks of breaking the sound barrier in a free-fall.  

Certain types of self-endangerment are halakhically permissible because the motivation behind the act is meritorious.  Serving in war, donating a kidney, or settling dangerous parts of Israel is allowed because one is trying to accomplish a mitzvah.  On these grounds, space travel has been deemed permissible because it aims at a high, even noble goal.  When the goal is to earn a livelihood, scholars debate the extent to which individuals may do dangerous jobs, like ice road trucking.  Limited risks are allowed reluctantly, and only when necessary.    

Beyond such acts, however, self-endangerment is prohibited.  One who unnecessarily endangers himself, Rabbi Moshe Rivkash explained, "despises the will of his Creator and does not want to serve Him."

What noble goal was achieved by Red Bull Stratos?  Its mission, says its website, was to "transcend human limits."  Beyond this general statement, what knowledge was sought from the experience?  "To provide valuable medical and scientific research data for future pioneers," the sponsors say, answering questions like, what would happen if a human falling faster than the speed of sound encountered an emergency?  

In other words, the purpose of this trip was . . . to make another such trip possible. 

Many have expressed doubt that this stunt had real scientific value, even for air or space travelScientists affiliated with the project insist there will be scientific benefits; I suppose time will tell.  I'm no scientist, but I remain skeptical that any such benefits will justify the risks of what was clearly a publicity-seeking stunt; moreover, such stunts may set perilous precedents for future advertisers and amateur daredevils.  Red Bull Stratos seems another example of "living on the edge" so as to distract ourselves from the challenge of living with meaning. 

Because of weather delays, the Red Bull Stratos launch was delayed until just a few days before the Shabbat when the world's Jews read about the Tower of Babel.  That Torah reading, one hopes, reminded us that humanity's loftiness consists not in ascents to the Heavens but in dedicating our lives toward Heavenly actions on Earth. 

Rabbi Shlomo M. Brody teaches at Yeshivat Hakotel, writes the Ask the Rabbi column for the Jerusalem Post, and directs the Tikvah Israel Seminars for Post-High School Students.

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