ERNEST LEFEVER did the honorable thing by taking himself out of consideration to be the State Department's human rights officer. To have stayed in contention, after a majority of the Foreign Relations Committee's Republicans had joined all its Democrats in voting against him, would have put a burden on the president to fight for him on the floor. Even if he had then been approved, Mr. Lefever would have come to the job limping. At each difficult moment, attention could have turned from the policy matter at hand to the peculiarities of his belief and style.

Understandably, the controversy over him has raised the question of whether they ought to be a separate human rights position at all. It is not simply that the administration feels bruised and that the post is tough to fill. The existence of the position, requiring confirmation, tends to transform human rights from something that ideally might flow naturally from a president's basic foreign policy approach, into a stand-apart function that may or may not relate organically to the rest of a president's policy. Then there is the practical bureaucratic issue of whether the human rights cause, assuming that a given administration can define it, is helped or hurt by being organized in a separate office. The history of the position -- the next occupant will be only the second -- is too brief to be conclusive. The subject ought to be explored.

Meanwhile, if Mr. Reagan decides to fill the position (he is evidently in some doubt on this), his experience with Mr. Lefever should help him understand what is required. It is not enough that he pick someone who is able and sympathetic to his general political or ideological line. The nominee's experience, judgment and integrity must convey to the broad range of people concerned with human rights that he or she genuinely shares that concern. Surely it is not so that liberals have a monopoly on commitment to human rights. Mr. Reagan has a strong interest in showing that conservations have a commitment too.

We hesitate to put a name in nomination. But we observe that Michael Novak, currently President Reagan's representative to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, established himself at once there as a conservative, a Reagan loyalist, an effective advocate and a man of principle. Even as Mr. Lefever was identifying himself with an intellectually himself with an intellectually rigid and politically narrow conception of human rights, Mr. Novak was emerging as someone of political and moral depth. He could attack "the Cuban-supported left [as] the source of a large portion of the violence and killing in El Salvador," and then declare that "my delegation has evidence that the terror of Salvadorans upon Salvadorans does not come only from the left. It comes also from politically disappointed forces close to the old-oligarchy. . . ." This is the stuff of which credibility is made.It is exactly what Ronald Reagan now needs.