You've probably heard that for the second time in less than a year, Britney Spears is making plans to get married. I'd be interested, in fact, in what you heard, since in a single afternoon on the Internet, I gleaned that the wedding will be celebrated in November, September, or maybe October and that Spears' fiancé Kevin Federline, whose former girlfriend gave birth to his second child in July, either did or didn't sign a pre-nuptial agreement. What seems more sure is the numbers: the starlet paid $40,000 out of her own pocket for her engagement ring, and the cost of the wedding will be $1.8 million (the white tulips from Amsterdam alone are worth $180,000).

But what's generated the most buzz by far are rumors about the ceremony itself. Before Britney and Kevin acceded to parental pressure last week and decided to wed in a Catholic ceremony in a California monastery, it was reported in a widely reprinted story that Spears was planning the "first celebrity Kabbalah marriage." Readers were told this wedding would "take place beneath a traditional Jewish canopy known as a chuppah, with wedding vows inspired by the cult religion."

Now it seems that another celebrity kabbalah-loving duo will take Britney's place at the altar. Rumors are flying that actors Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher will tie the knot in a "kabbalah ceremony" as part of their mysticism-themed pilgrimage to Tel Aviv next week in honor of the Jewish new year. But what would a kabbalah wedding ceremony be like?

Here's what we know for sure. Though Kabbalistic customs, practices, and beliefs have influenced traditional Judaism over the centuries, Kabbalah is not a "faith," or even a "cult religion," no matter what the gossip columnists might write. Though Kabbalists wrote many Jewish prayers and hymns, there is no specifically Kabbalistic liturgy.

Kabbalah (the Hebrew word for "tradition" or "received") refers to a body of esoteric, mystical Jewish teachings that flowered in medieval Provence and Germany, but whose roots extend back to Biblical times, and which continues to evolve--in a staggering variety of manifestations--today. Kabbalists have sometimes wandered far afield of what we think of as traditional Judaism, cultivating ecstatic trances, incorporating Neoplatonic, Pythagorean, Sufist, and Gnostic ideas into their metaphysics, practicing numerology, astrology, and palmistry, and believing in reincarnation. But the bedrock of Kabbalah is undeniably Jewish. Kabbalah teaches that the Torah is the revealed word of God; the universe itself, it says, was created out of Hebrew letters.

Not that the Kabbalists weren't iconoclastic. Recognizing how perilously close to heresy some of their ideas skirted, as well as the psychological risks attendant upon the intense religiosity they cultivated, until recently its teachers flatly refused to accept students who weren't married, male, deeply versed in Torah and Talmud, and committed to obeying Jewish law . "Even after one has achieved the spirituality of an angel, one must still abide by the commandments like a simple Jew," declared the Baal Shem Tov, the mystical 18th-century rabbi who founded modern Hasidism.

So if Kabbalah is so Jewish, how did the Catholic-raised Madonna and the Baptist-raised Britney Spears, along with Demi and Ashton, find their way to it? As early as the 1400s, there were Christian adaptations of Kabbalah. Kabbalistic texts and teachings have also had a significant influence on alchemy, Rosicrucianism, and other occult movements, and, through them, on a vast array of contemporary beliefs that fall under the rubric "New Age." But that is not why Kabbalah has been cropping up on the gossip pages. The Kabbalah of Madonna, Demi, Barbra Streisand, Britney, Posh Spice and so many other celebrities is very much the creation of one man, Philip Berg.

Born Feivel Gruberger in Brooklyn in 1929, the one-time insurance agent studied with the renowned Israeli Kabbalist Yehuda Brandwein, his first wife's uncle. With his second wife, Karen, and their two sons, Yehuda and Michael, Rav Berg has built the International Kabbalah Centres into a far-reaching empire, opening schools throughout the world, and selling truckloads of books, audiocassettes, red string bracelets, which are supposed to ward off evil, and even Kabbalah bottled water.

According to a recent article in the Village Voice: "Nearly 4 million people have walked through various Kabbalah Centre doors since its first course was given in 1969 on the campus of Tel Aviv University. The first U.S.

center opened in 1972; there are about 40 branches worldwide, the latest in Warsaw (the largest are in Tel Aviv and Los Angeles, with about 1,000 students each; Manhattan is quickly catching up). About 20,000 people visit the website each month."