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The gemarah in Eruvin 100b says that had the Torah not been give we would have learned various behaviors from certain animals, such as modesty from the cat. To me this presupposes that had the Torah not been given

  • A) modesty would still have been a valuable behavior
  • B) that people would know where to look for it, which presupposes that cats are all over the world(?)
  • C) that we only would have learned positive behavior traits-- and NOT the cruelty and murder in the animal kingdom.
    Why/ how would we not learn those traits as well?

In short I am having a hard time understanding this gemara and would like to know on a simple level (not allegorical) what this gemara is trying to convey.

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You seem to have hit the nail on the head. Point A is the important takeaway of this piece, and I don't know that you need to take its examples so literally as to worry about points B and C. As Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein wrote:

The passage implies, first, that a cluster of logically ante-halakhic virtues exists; second, that these virtues can be inferred from natural phenomena; and, probably, third -- with Plato and against the Sophists -- that they relate to physis rather than nomos, being not only observable through nature but inherent within it. Nor does the passage [on Eruvin 100b] stand alone. The wide-ranging concept of derekh eretz -- roughly the equivalent of what Coventry Patmore called "traditions of civility" -- points in the same direction. Its importance again, not as descriptively synonymous with conventional conduct but as prescriptive lex naturalis should not be underestimated. (Leaves of Faith, vol. 2, p. 33-34)

  • I don't see how this answers the thrust of the question which seems to me to be something to the effect of without the torah how could we determine what part of lex naturalis to follow or not? If the answer is common sechel then its a tautology to say go look for something in the animal kingdom that you already know yourself – not-allowed to change my name Apr 28 '14 at 1:03
  • @not-allowedtochangemyname Defining the thrust of the question is a questionable task in itself, but as I said, the important takeaway is that there is this ante-halakhic lex naturalis, not how to derive its particulars per se. That already is quite a novel idea to many learned Jews. – Double AA Apr 28 '14 at 1:29
  • that's a real tautology - the gemara is only a source to this chiddush if it means what Rav Lichtenstein says it means! – not-allowed to change my name Apr 29 '14 at 1:07
  • I don't think "tautology" is the right critique here. A gemara is a source for the idea which R Lichtenstein elaborates upon in his article. Just because many learned Jews today don't know it doesn't make it a Chiddush when you have a good canonical source saying so. – Double AA May 2 '14 at 5:04
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When reading the meforshim on the gemora and various postings, the point is that we see instinctive behavior in animals that we should learn to apply to our own behavior. Thus, your point C does not apply because we are being told that we should learn proper behavior. An animal has no choice in behavior whereas human beings have free will. When we see proper behavior, we should learn about it and apply the meaning to our lives. The proper behavior that we learn applies to all human beings and not just Jews who follow the torah.

On a simple level, we should make sure to understand proper behavior and teach ourselves using whatever we see in the world.

  • Can you identify which meforshim and postings led you to believe this? – Double AA Apr 27 '14 at 1:48
  • "we are being told that we should learn proper behavior" But how do we know which behavior is proper? This answer is circular. – Double AA Apr 27 '14 at 1:52
  • @DoubleAA the "proper" behavior is that Hashem has told us is proper. This is just an analogy and a way of learning things. It does not necessarily mean that anything the animals do should be emulated. – sabbahillel Apr 27 '14 at 2:07
  • What are you learning if you already know the answer of what is proper? – Double AA Apr 27 '14 at 2:08
  • To pick-up on @DoubleAA 's question - why does the Gemara refer to "had the Torah not been given?" Seems like it is specifically because the Torah was given that we can follow through with this, according to your approach. – Y     e     z Apr 28 '14 at 18:06
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The answer I heard (don't remember the source) is that since it says "G-d made man straight" a person has an inherent ability to understand which observed behaviors to learn to do, and which behaviors to learn to avoid.

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