On April 22, 1863, the jurist Gabriel Riesser, a champion of German-Jewish emancipation, died, at the age of 57. Proud of his people and their heritage at the same time he advocated their complete assimilation, Riesser became a hero to 19th-century German Jewry for his sophisticated and unapologetic argument that they deserved equality before the law.
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Gabriel Riesser was born in Hamburg, on April 2, 1806, the youngest of five children. His father, Lazarus (or Eliezer) Jakob Riesser, was the son a rabbinical judge, and was himself trained as a rabbi before he turned to commerce, while his mother, the former Fanny Cohen, was the daughter of the chief rabbi of the Altona religious court.
Gabriel grew up breathing the spirit of emancipation, in the years following the French occupation of parts of Germany, including Hamburg and Lubeck, both cities where the Riesser family lived. The constitution introduced by the French promised full citizenship to the Jews.
After receiving a standard education in German schools — including a period when he lived with a Christian family in Luebeck, after his parents returned to Hamburg — supplemented by Jewish studies with his father, Riesser studied law at Universities of Kiel and later Heidelberg, finishing in 1828.
The following year, however, Riesser found himself denied the right either to practice law or to teach law at the university level, because he was not a citizen of Hamburg. Jews were not permitted to become citizens, even though in his application to become a teacher, Riesser made reference to a theoretical German guarantee of equality. This rejection drove him to commit himself enthusiastically to the cause of emancipation. The option of conversion to Christianity was not one he was interested in pursuing.
Judaism was his religion, but it was the religion he chose not to practice. He was proud of his study as an adult of the Bible in Hebrew, but he never sought to study the Talmud, and he rejected the binding nature of Jewish law.
After he was frustrated in his attempt to practice law, Riesser published, in1831, a pamphlet called “On the Condition of Those Professing the Mosaic Faith in Germany,” in which he laid out for “Germans of all persuasions” the situation of Jews in the country, and made the case to the Jews themselves to participate in the struggle to achieve their rights. So enthusiastic were his co-religionists about his remarks that Riesser became the de facto spokesman for the cause.
In a response to the pamphlet, the theologian H.E.G. Paulus, of Heidelberg, argued that Jews, thanks to their adherence to their separate laws and customs, constituted a separate nation from other Germans, and thus were disqualified from citizenship. Riesser’s reply, his “Defense of the Civil Equality of the Jews,” was quick in coming, and in it he argued that the Jews constituted a religious denomination, and no more, and in that way were not different from other Germans. The tone of the defense is no less persuasive than the content, as he adopts an almost breezy, dismissive voice to brush off the claims of an interlocutor who “obviously has no idea what he is talking about.”
In 1832, Riesser began publishing Der Jude, a periodical dedicated to the subject of emancipation, with contributions from many notable Jewish figures.
Later in his life, he began to reap personally the fruits of his efforts, when the law in Hamburg was changed so that in 1840, Riesser could be named a notary. In 1848, he was elected to the short-lived National Assembly of Frankfurt, which attempted to bring about German unification, and in 1860, Riesser became the country’s first Jew to be named a judge, when he began serving on the high court in Hamburg. At the same time, his colleague in the fight for Jewish emancipation, Isaac Wolffson, became the president of the Hamburg parliament, also a Jewish first.
After his death, from a painful illness, on this date in 1863, Riesser was buried at Hamburg’s Grindel Jewish cemetery. Prior to the cemetery’s demolition by the Nazis, in 1937, his grave, and all the others, were transferred to the Jewish section of the city’s Ohlsdorf Cemetery.