WASHINGTON, Oct. 19, (RNS)--The National Abortion and Reproductive Rights ActionLeague loves Sen. Joseph Lieberman, the first Jew to run on a majorparty's presidential ticket. The group calls Lieberman a "staunchdefender of choice" for his 1997 vote against a ban on what abortionopponents call "partial-birth" abortion and his recent support of theFood and Drug Administration's approval of RU-486, the "morning after"abortion pill.

Predictably, Lieberman's support for legal abortion has garneredcriticism from the ranks of the religious right. Toward Tradition, acoalition of Jews and Christians who claim to support "traditionalAmerican values," chided Lieberman's stance as inconsistent with hismuch-talked-about Jewish faith.

"Judaism is not a pro-choice religion," said Rabbi YardenWeidenfeld, Toward Tradition's national director. "It allows abortiononly in very limited circumstances. But Lieberman makes it seem as ifit's entirely whatever floats your boat."

Richard Lessner, a spokesman for American Renewal, an organizationaffiliated with the conservative Family Research Council, went further,calling Lieberman's stance outright hypocrisy. "He flaunts his religionbut he doesn't observe its tenets in the political sphere," Lessnersaid.

But when it comes to Lieberman's own Jewish community, even the mostconservative of Orthodox leaders -- many of whom find most cases ofabortion to be morally wrong -- have not criticized Lieberman'spro-choice record. Why not?

"Abortion is not the issue on which the Jewish community lives ordies, far from it," said Jonathan Sarna, professor of American Jewishhistory at Brandeis University, who said U.S. Jews have bigger issues toworry about, such as intermarriage, anti-Semitism and the survival ofthe Jewish people.

But is there an underlying reluctance for Jewish leaders to publiclycriticize one of their own, the first Jew with a realistic shot at thevice presidency and perhaps the White House?

Maybe, Sarna said, but maybe not. Jewish leaders, given the rightreason, have not shied away from criticizing Lieberman on other issuesin recent weeks. Sarna pointed out that when Lieberman, in a recentradio interview with Don Imus, said Jewish law does not forbidintermarriage, Jewish leaders reacted with public dismay.

Rabbi Avi Shafran, director of public affairs for Agudath Israel,which represents the ultra-right wing of Orthodox Judaism, accusedLieberman of misrepresenting Jewish tradition. And soon after Liebermanwas picked by Vice President Al Gore, the Anti-Defamation League chidedLieberman for "improper and unsettling" talk about public religion onthe campaign trail.

Unlike intermarriage, abortion is a complicated matter in Judaism.

"It's not a question of either-or, but more often of when, how andwhat circumstances," said Rabbi Steven Dworkin, executive vice presidentof the Modern Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America.

Judaism does not view abortion as a form of birth control, or purelyas an expression of a woman's choice to control her body, Dworkin said.The different branches of Judaism interpret "halacha," or Jewish law,differently as it applies to abortion. But all agree that the mother'slife always takes precedence over the fetus.

Lieberman himself has struggled with the issue, voicing support fora woman's right to choose but stating publicly that he does not condoneabortion. In an oft-quoted 1990 speech, he said, "As a lawmaker I cannotimpose my personal judgment on others."

Lieberman's struggle between his conscience and his perceived civicduty recalls Mario Cuomo's war of words with the Roman Catholichierarchy over the abortion issue in 1984, when he was governor of NewYork.

Cuomo, who similarly talked about the importance of faith in hislife, argued that in all matters -- and specifically on abortion -- hisfirst allegiance was to the law of the land, not the doctrine of hischurch. In a pluralistic society, Cuomo said, his religious views onabortion had no place in governing.

But unlike Lieberman's Jewish brethren, the church's reaction toCuomo was swift and fierce. The National Conference of Catholic Bishopsdeclared that "the implied dichotomy between personal morality andpublic policy is simply not logically tenable."

The Jewish community, Professor Sarna said, sees the role ofreligion in public life differently from Catholics.

"Orthodox Jewish organizations have taken the position thatLieberman is running for public office, not head rabbi," Sarna said."And while they are hoping that Lieberman will be a role model for Jews,they're probably glad to count their blessings that he observes as muchas he does. They realize that it would be self-destructive to criticizehim for every deviation from Jewish law."

Moreover, Sarna said, Jews historically do not see the public arenaas a place to shape their religious beliefs. Jewish leaders from allsides of the religious spectrum echoed Sarna's belief that there is anallowable -- albeit uneasy -- dichotomy between private faith and publicpolicy.

"In Judaism it is OK to separate your religious stance from thelarger society," said Rabbi Joel Meyers, executive vice president of theConservative movement's Rabbinical Assembly.

Shafran agrees.

"It is a 1,400-year-old Jewish principal that the law of the landhas a standing authority," Shafran said. He said that he did not viewLieberman's inconsistency between his religious position and hispolitical philosophy as a betrayal of Torah. "The state should not be inthe business of prohibiting decisions like abortion," Shafran said.

"Many Orthodox Jews value the freedoms that this great country providesus, even if it allows for the expression of immorality and choices thatwe consider immoral."