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The Gemmorah teaches us that we could learn basic morality from the animal kingdom (Eruvin.100b.29, see also 28):

אָמַר רַבִּי יוֹחָנָן: אִילְמָלֵא לֹא נִיתְּנָה תּוֹרָה, הָיִינוּ לְמֵידִין צְנִיעוּת מֵחָתוּל, וְגָזֵל מִנְּמָלָה, וַעֲרָיוֹת מִיּוֹנָה. דֶּרֶךְ אֶרֶץ מִתַּרְנְגוֹל — שֶׁמְּפַיֵּיס וְאַחַר כָּךְ בּוֹעֵל.

Similarly, Rabbi Yoḥanan said: Even if the Torah had not been given, we would nonetheless have learned modesty from the cat, which covers its excrement, and that stealing is objectionable from the ant, which does not take grain from another ant, and forbidden relations from the dove, which is faithful to its partner, and proper relations from the rooster, which first appeases the hen and then mates with it.

My basic question is - how do these manifestations of animal morality come about? Do the sages claim that animals possess basic morality, that they are subject to basic moral laws, maybe the 7 Noahide laws, or that their behavior is completely habitual, but we would interpret it as moral?

So here comes my second question:

In my understanding, we recognize that what cats do is moral only because the Torah teaches us so, and without such prior knowledge we couldn't differentiate between cats' and dogs' modesty.

In such situation, without divine guidance, how would we differentiate between moral and immoral animals?

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    While we may not be able to differentiate to determine which trait of which species to follow, the traits would be there so that it's POSSIBLE to learn if we so chose. For example, people who lived before the Torah was given, or religions who never had any contact with it, still have some norms of morality. These species are there to give them the option to observe and hopefully adopt the ones they think are right. Without these species there would be no such ideas in the world from which to draw conclusions from
    – Chatzkel
    Jul 29 '21 at 0:30
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Rav Hutner (Mamarei Pachad Yitzchak, Pesach) implies that that which animals display good traits is a true reflection of a godly nobleness that is inherent in the nature of that animal.

On a similar note, Rb Wolbe (Alei Shur chelek beis, on frumkeit) says that animals pray to Hashem.

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  • This does not provide an answer to the question. To critique or request clarification from an author, leave a comment below their post. - From Review
    – mbloch
    Jul 29 '21 at 3:40
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    I thought it was an answer? I.e. there are no clear sources that state what I am saying but this is the feeling I get from Rav Hutner, Reb Leib Gurwicz, the Telzer Rov et al.
    – pcoz
    Jul 29 '21 at 3:41
  • @pcoz - maybe then quote them in your answer
    – Dov
    Jul 29 '21 at 9:50
  • @Dov Added some references.
    – pcoz
    Jul 29 '21 at 23:06
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Note: The following is my opinion and is based primarily from the written Torah.

The Bible seems to take it for granted that animals naturally have some form of morality, wisdom/understanding, and holiness. In the story of Gan Eden the serpent is called the "most wise" of the animals, as if other animals are wise and the serpent simply happens to be the wisest. And when the snake sins, it is punished for its sin because it should have known better, just like Adam and Eve.

When we get to the flood story God beholds the whole earth and concludes that all flesh has become corrupt. Many commentaries limit this corruption to people, and limit it further to the corruption being the act of theft. This doesn't make sense on a peshat level because we know God is loathe to kill animals for no reason, for he says so very clearly in the book of Jonah.

Jonah 4:11

יא וַאֲנִי לֹא אָחוּס, עַל-נִינְוֵה הָעִיר הַגְּדוֹלָה--אֲשֶׁר יֶשׁ-בָּהּ הַרְבֵּה מִשְׁתֵּים-עֶשְׂרֵה רִבּוֹ אָדָם, אֲשֶׁר לֹא-יָדַע בֵּין-יְמִינוֹ לִשְׂמֹאלוֹ, וּבְהֵמָה, רַבָּה. {ש} 11 11 And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?

It seems to me that God has concluded that nearly the entire animal kingdom has become corrupt just like mankind, and therefore he will destroy people and animals who are guilty of the same sin. It's beyond the scope of this answer to discuss what this joint sin might be, but feel free to ask that question as a separate post if you wish.

To further the point that the Bible views morality and wisdom/understanding as intrinsic to animals is the fact that God not only feels compelled to destroy animal life with man, God also establishes a covenant with animals and men as equal parties which is something most commentaries gloss over. We know they are being treated as equal parties because covenants are agreed upon with words and then a physical representation is made. Think the big rock for the covenant with Jacob and Lavan, the copies of the stones of the ten commandments. Usually each party gets either their own copy or has access to the physical representation of the covenant. Both Laban and Jacob can go back to the stone pillar, we hold both copies of the 10 commandments (one set for us the other for God) but we place them in the holy of holies where God resides. In the case of this covenant the rainbow is given which is in heaven, but also visible to man and animals.

Genesis 6:11-13, 17-22

יא וַתִּשָּׁחֵת הָאָרֶץ, לִפְנֵי הָאֱלֹהִים; וַתִּמָּלֵא הָאָרֶץ, חָמָס. 11 And the earth was corrupt before God, and the earth was filled with violence. יב וַיַּרְא אֱלֹהִים אֶת-הָאָרֶץ, וְהִנֵּה נִשְׁחָתָה: כִּי-הִשְׁחִית כָּל-בָּשָׂר אֶת-דַּרְכּוֹ, עַל-הָאָרֶץ. {ס} 12 And God saw the earth, and, behold, it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted their way upon the earth. {S} יג וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים לְנֹחַ, קֵץ כָּל-בָּשָׂר בָּא לְפָנַי--כִּי-מָלְאָה הָאָרֶץ חָמָס, מִפְּנֵיהֶם; וְהִנְנִי מַשְׁחִיתָם, אֶת-הָאָרֶץ. 13 And God said unto Noah: 'The end of all flesh is come before Me; for the earth is filled with violence through them; and, behold, I will destroy them with the earth....... יז וַאֲנִי, הִנְנִי מֵבִיא אֶת-הַמַּבּוּל מַיִם עַל-הָאָרֶץ, לְשַׁחֵת כָּל-בָּשָׂר אֲשֶׁר-בּוֹ רוּחַ חַיִּים, מִתַּחַת הַשָּׁמָיִם: כֹּל אֲשֶׁר-בָּאָרֶץ, יִגְוָע. 17 And I, behold, I do bring the flood of waters upon the earth, to destroy all flesh, wherein is the breath of life, from under heaven; every thing that is in the earth shall perish. יח וַהֲקִמֹתִי אֶת-בְּרִיתִי, אִתָּךְ; וּבָאתָ, אֶל-הַתֵּבָה--אַתָּה, וּבָנֶיךָ וְאִשְׁתְּךָ וּנְשֵׁי-בָנֶיךָ אִתָּךְ. 18 But I will establish My covenant with thee; and thou shalt come into the ark, thou, and thy sons, and thy wife, and thy sons' wives with thee. יט וּמִכָּל-הָחַי מִכָּל-בָּשָׂר שְׁנַיִם מִכֹּל, תָּבִיא אֶל-הַתֵּבָה--לְהַחֲיֹת אִתָּךְ: זָכָר וּנְקֵבָה, יִהְיוּ. 19 And of every living thing of all flesh, two of every sort shalt thou bring into the ark, to keep them alive with thee; they shall be male and female. כ מֵהָעוֹף לְמִינֵהוּ, וּמִן-הַבְּהֵמָה לְמִינָהּ, מִכֹּל רֶמֶשׂ הָאֲדָמָה, לְמִינֵהוּ--שְׁנַיִם מִכֹּל יָבֹאוּ אֵלֶיךָ, לְהַחֲיוֹת. 20 Of the fowl after their kind, and of the cattle after their kind, of every creeping thing of the ground after its kind, two of every sort shall come unto thee, to keep them alive. כא וְאַתָּה קַח-לְךָ, מִכָּל-מַאֲכָל אֲשֶׁר יֵאָכֵל, וְאָסַפְתָּ, אֵלֶיךָ; וְהָיָה לְךָ וְלָהֶם, לְאָכְלָה. 21 And take thou unto thee of all food that is eaten, and gather it to thee; and it shall be for food for thee, and for them.' כב וַיַּעַשׂ, נֹחַ: כְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה אֹתוֹ, אֱלֹהִים--כֵּן עָשָׂה. 22 Thus did Noah; according to all that God commanded him, so did he.

Genesis 9:9-10

ט וַאֲנִי, הִנְנִי מֵקִים אֶת-בְּרִיתִי אִתְּכֶם, וְאֶת-זַרְעֲכֶם, אַחֲרֵיכֶם. 9 'As for Me, behold, I establish My covenant with you, and with your seed after you; י וְאֵת כָּל-נֶפֶשׁ הַחַיָּה אֲשֶׁר אִתְּכֶם, בָּעוֹף בַּבְּהֵמָה וּבְכָל-חַיַּת הָאָרֶץ אִתְּכֶם; מִכֹּל יֹצְאֵי הַתֵּבָה, לְכֹל חַיַּת הָאָרֶץ. 10 and with every living creature that is with you, the fowl, the cattle, and every beast of the earth with you; of all that go out of the ark, even every beast of the earth.

So just to recap, God seems to want to destroy all flesh because all flesh is corrupt. And for those that haven't become corrupted (both man and animal), God is going to save them AND establish a covenant with both man and animal kind. So without getting into the detail of just how much morality or wisdom the animal kingdom has, the Bible takes for granted that both exist naturally in animals to such an extent that animals can be judged as sinners worthy of the death penalty, or redeemed and have covenants established with them.

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In regards to the basic question, the Ben Yohada on that Gemara mentions in passing that these traits are natural to these species

ונמצא דלמדין צניעות משני מדות טבעיות שבו

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  • I don't see how it answers the question. We can only judge the animal after we have morality. And all species pass their genes.
    – Al Berko
    Jul 31 '21 at 19:53
  • Specifically it refers to the first question about if the sages say if it's habitual etc.
    – Chatzkel
    Aug 1 '21 at 2:08
  • The use of the word "טבעי" has changed in Modern Hebrew. Initially, it meant "innate", "essential", not "natural" as there was no idea of "nature" as opposed to "divine" in Judaism. See for example sefaria.org/….
    – Al Berko
    Aug 2 '21 at 11:44

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