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

Predictably, Lieberman's support for legal abortion has garnered criticism from the ranks of the religious right. Toward Tradition, a coalition of Jews and Christians who claim to support "traditional American values," chided Lieberman's stance as inconsistent with his much-talked-about Jewish faith.

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe, Sarna said, but maybe not. Jewish leaders, given the right reason, have not shied away from criticizing Lieberman on other issues in recent weeks. Sarna pointed out that when Lieberman, in a recent radio interview with Don Imus, said Jewish law does not forbid intermarriage, 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, accused Lieberman of misrepresenting Jewish tradition. And soon after Lieberman was picked by Vice President Al Gore, the Anti-Defamation League chided Lieberman for "improper and unsettling" talk about public religion on the 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 and what circumstances," said Rabbi Steven Dworkin, executive vice president of the Modern Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America.

Judaism does not view abortion as a form of birth control, or purely as 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's life always takes precedence over the fetus.

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

Lieberman's struggle between his conscience and his perceived civic duty recalls Mario Cuomo's war of words with the Roman Catholic hierarchy over the abortion issue in 1984, when he was governor of New York.

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

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

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

"Orthodox Jewish organizations have taken the position that Lieberman 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 much as he does. They realize that it would be self-destructive to criticize him for every deviation from Jewish law."

Moreover, Sarna said, Jews historically do not see the public arena as a place to shape their religious beliefs. Jewish leaders from all sides of the religious spectrum echoed Sarna's belief that there is an allowable -- albeit uneasy -- dichotomy between private faith and public policy.

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

Shafran agrees.

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

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

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