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Gabriel Riesser

(1806 - 1863)

Gabriel Riesser was a pioneer of Jewish emancipation in Germany. Born in Hamburg, Riesser studied law at the universities of Kiel and Heidelberg. After trying in vain to become lecturer in one of the universities, and after being refused permission to practice as a notary in Hamburg because of his faith (1830), Riesser decided to devote his life to the struggle of the Jews to achieve *emancipation . He published in 1831 a pamphlet, Ueber die Stellung der Bekenner des Mosaischen Glaubens in Deutschland. Addressed to Germans of all religious persuasions, it marked a turning point in the struggle for emancipation. Riesser demanded emancipation for the Jews in the name of honor and justice. In his view the claim that the Jews must convert in order to obtain full civil rights was evidence of contempt for religion. The Jews themselves must fight for their own rights, and for that purpose they must organize themselves in special associations, since only by a common effort and not as individuals do they have a chance of success. His call struck a responsive chord and the pamphlet soon had to be reprinted.

Riesser and his ideas were severely criticized, especially by the rationalist theologian and professor, H.E.G. Paulus from Heidelberg. Paulus maintained that the adherence of the Jews to their religion made them a different – Jewish – nation, and therefore they did not have the right to be citizens (Staatsbuerger). In the controversy with Paulus, Riesser tried to prove that the Jews had ceased to be a nation. He held that their religion was a religious denomination and therefore they were equal to all other Germans, Protestants or Catholics, in a country in which they had lived for many generations. Riesser vigorously rejected Paulus' claim that the Jewish identification with Germany would be delusive. He argued that the long-awaited political union of Germany could be achieved only in a state built on the principles of justice, liberty, and equality, and these principles also necessitated the granting of emancipation to the Jews. He propagated his views in comprehensive essays about the problem of Jewish emancipation in the constitutional debates of his time, which he published in his periodical Der Jude, Periodische Blaetter fuer Religion und Gewissensfreiheit (1831–1833). Its very name indicated Riesser's self-consciousness at a time when German Jewry was seeking to substitute the word "Jewish" with "Mosaic." He published in 1838 Einige Worte ueber Lessing's Denkmal, an die Juden Deutschlands gerichtet. Riesser expressed the hope, in messianic vein, that the struggle for the sake of human values would be crowned with success, and that love of mankind and tolerance would defeat religious hatred and the suppression of free conscience. At the same time Riesser tried in vain to be naturalized in Hessen and to take part in forming its constitutional regime. In 1840 he was permitted to open a notary's office in Hamburg. In the years preceding the 1848 Revolution, ideological and political strife in Germany intensified and this found expression in his work, Juedische Briefe, Zur Abwehr und Verstaendigung (1840–42), in which he entered into polemics with Bruno *Bauer and Wolfgang Menzel, who was a rabid opponent of Heinrich *Heine and Ludwig *Boerne . Riesser had already defended Boerne in 1831 when the latter was attacked because of his Briefe aus Paris.

Riesser's aspiration to function simultaneously as a German statesman and as an advocate of Jewish emancipation materialized during the Frankfurter Vorparlament und National Versammlung in 1848–49. Distinguishing himself in the National Assembly as a powerful speaker, he was vice president (for two months) and a member of the constitutional committee. He belonged to the right wing of the center in the National Assembly, expressing his views on "a free, united, great, and strong" Germany in his article, Ein Wort ueber die Zukunft Deutschlands (1848). The climax of his activity was the "Kaiserrede" (March 29, 1849), which was considered one of the most brilliant speeches delivered in the National Assembly. It contained the summary of the debate on the proposed constitution, and in it Riesser sought to provide justification for offering the imperial German crown to the king of Prussia; he was later one of the members of the delegation to the king, who declined the offer. Riesser proudly fought in the National Assembly for the acknowledgment of the Jews' right to full civil rights. His very status in the National Assembly was a partial expression of emancipation, which was given further expression in his later years. In 1849 not only was he naturalized in Hamburg but he became its representative in the Erfurt parliament (1850). With the formation of a citizens' council (Buergerschaft) in Hamburg, Riesser was elected to it and became its vice president (1859), and in 1860 he was appointed a member of the Hamburg High Court, the first German Jew to receive this title. Among his many travels outside Germany, Riesser visited the United States in 1856. He returned from this trip disappointed and shocked by the status of the American Blacks, which he regarded as a grave blow to the principle of equality and freedom, especially in a country whose democracy was theoretically the model for the rest of the world.

Riesser abandoned the observance of all Jewish tradition in his private life, but he insisted that those who wished to observe these traditions should do so of right and not on sufferance. Riesser was one of the leading members of the Hamburg Temple and associated himself generally with the moderate wing of the *Reform movement . He opposed giving up a special Jewish character in order to achieve emancipation. Only from the religious point of view were the Jews a minority, according to Riesser, a minority whose rights should be recognized by the ruling Christian majority.

The Jewish struggle for emancipation was identified with the figure of Riesser, whose sharp intellect and upright personality won him much reverence. Medals were struck in his honor and declarations of gratitude were presented to him during his lifetime. After he died a special association to perpetuate his memory was formed; M. Isler published Riesser's biography and writings under the auspices of this society (Gabriel Riesser's Gesammelte Schriften, 1867–68; repr. with an epilogue by J.H. Schoeps, 2001).

[Leni Yahil /

Archiv Bibliographia Judaica (2nd ed.)]

His father LAZARUS JACOB (1763–1828) was born in the Bavarian village of Oettingen im Ries (hence his name) to a distinguished rabbinical family ( *Katzenellenbogen ) and studied Talmud under R. Raphael *Kohen , chief rabbi of *Altona . He subsequently married the latter's daughter, and served as secretary of the bet din; he also wrote his father-in-law's biography Zekher Ẓaddik (Altona, 1805) in fluent Hebrew. He lost his post in 1799, but later returned to Hamburg (after 1819).


M. Rinott, in: YLBI, 7 (1962), 11–38; J. Weil, Sendschreiben an Dr. Gabriel Riesser (1832); B. Auerbach, in: Gallerie der ausgezeichneten Israeliten aller Jahrhunderte, 4 (1836), 5–42; N. Frankfurter, Denkrede auf Gabriel Riesser (1863); E. Lehmann, Gabriel Riesser, ein Rechtsanwalt (1870); M. Isler, Gabriel Riesser's Leben (1871); M. Silberstein, Gabriel Riesser's Leben und Wirken (1911); S. Bernfeld, Gavriel Riesser (Heb., 1901); F. Friedlaender, Das Leben Gabriel Riessers. Ein Beitrag zur inneren Geschichte Deutschlands im 19. Jahrhundert (1926); J. Seifensieder, Gabriel Riesser (1920), 3–14. ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: E. Lueth, Gabriel Riesser, ein grosser Jude, Hamburger und deutscher Patriot (1963); M. Zimmermann, in: Zeitschrift des Vereins fuer Hamburgische Geschichte, 61 (1975), 59–84; U. Barschel, Gabriel Riesser als Abgeordneter… (1987); G. Arnsberg, Gavriel Riser (Heb., 1990); R. Postel and H. Stubbe-da Luz, Die Notare: J.H. Hübbe, E. Schramm, G. Riesser… (2001).

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.